Sunday, July 24, 2005

Hustle & Flow and Coffee & Cigarettes

Hustle and Flow - This is a film about a pimp with the dream of becoming a rapper. It was a huge hit at Sundance and is now getting a fairly wide release, which it deserves. It seems like every summer, there's a few films from Sundance that make it out and become the token indie that people can go see. Like Garden State, this film isn't exactly two people making a film in their backyard, when Ludacris is in a movie, you're not too indie. Still, it is a film that was made without a studio, which means that the film is a bit more singular vision than a studio film is.

But enough about the behind the scenes, how's the film itself? This is a movie with a fairly cliched story, a story that's the same as countless backstage musicals from the 1930s and 40s, an unknown hopes to make it big musically, but by putting it within the world of a pimp, the story is reinvented to be more relevant to today's audience. Between this, 8 Mile, and the upcoming 50 Cent biopic, it seems that the musical is being reincarnated with hip hop films. Hustle and Flow has a similar plot as 8 Mile, but I think the film is more effective than 8 Mile because you're pulling for the characters more.

In addition to reinventing the backstage musical, the film is a return to the tradition of 70s blaxploitation cinema. The title screen, with its bold yellow letters is pure blaxploitaiton and the presence of Isaac Hayes furthers the connection. Then, there's a top notch 70s inspired score that really helps the film.

One thing that can make a film work is to have the audience really pulling for the characters. All too frequently in movies, you know the outcome, so you're not really concerned when things go bad for a character. Look at the sad montage in any romantic comedy, where the characters are broken up for a bit, even though we know they'll get back together in the end. There are no real negative consequences in the world of those films, however, in this film, things do get bad for the characters and that makes you want them to succeed more. When writing about The Office, I said that you want the characters to succeed because so much bad stuff happens to them that they earn a happy ending, and that's the case here too. DJay may do bad stuff, but you really want him to succeed as a rapper, and any time you really care about a character, your film will be successful, at least on an emotional level.

The best scenes in the film are the ones where DJay and his production team make the music. You really get the sense tha they are creating something and when the song finally works, it's a triumph. Hearing Shug sing the chorus for "Hard out there for a Pimp" is the best part in the film. It doesn't hurt that the rap songs are pretty good. I love when Key is bobbing subtly to the music, he's just really feeling it and that translates to the audience.

As in any film, things go bad, and it's quite a disappointment when you see DJay's demo in the toilet. You want him to succeed so much, because things are so bad for the characters. Like 8 Mile, this demo is his last chance to leave behind a life of poverty, and in the end, it's the music that gives all the characters a higher purpose beyond their boring lives. I really like that message, that creating art can make ordinary life so much more rewarding.

The film's weakness is in the fact that it's really a pretty cliched story. It's just so well told and acted that it totally succeeds as an emotional experience. It earns the happy ending.

Coffee and Cigarettes - This is a film by Jim Jarmusch, consisting of a series of short pieces revolving around the titular two vices. As in any anthology film, there's ups and downs. Looking at it as a whole, it's a really entertaining package, wiith enough great moments to overwhelm the shorts that don't really go anywhere.

The film reminded me a lot of Linklater's work, especially in the early going. Much like Slacker or Waking Life, we get to know a bunch of characters and hear them talk about something they're interested in. There's even some of the metaphysics that Linklater loves, with talk of dreams and Tesla Coils. However, the film lacks the narrative cohesion of Linklater's talking epics, and towards the end, the film becomes much more about comedy than the more lo-fi shorts near the beginning.

But this is actually a good thing. The final shorts present a really interesting comment on celebrity. 'Cousins' tells the story of Cate Blanchett and her cousin, Shelly (also played by Blanchett). They have a really uneasy relationship because of Cate's celebrity, with Shelly viewing any kindness as condescension, such as when Cate gives her a bag of free stuff she got due to her celebrity. Meanwhile, Cate struggles to seem genuinely interested in Shelly's life, even though she's really just killing time before an interview. It's a really uneasy dynamic, and I imagine that's what it would be like if your cousin is a celebrity.

The awkwardness reaches unbelievable heights in 'Cousins?' where Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan meet up. Alfred is very excited because he's discovered that he and Steve may in fact be cousins, but Steve is totally uninterested and in a hilarious exchange, refuses to give Alfed his home number. The interaction here is very real, and nicely exploits social boundaries, there's no acceptable way for Steve to not give Alfred his number and him trying to find a way is hilarious. One of the funniest lines is when Steve says his grandmother loved Alfred in Boogie Nights, clearly unable to remember any other film he was in. Things reverse when Spike Jonze calls Alfred, and Steve is now desperate to befriend Alfred, but can't because he has already offended him. It nicely captures real interaction and is incredibly funny.

My favorite segment was 'Delirium' in which the RZA and GZA of theWu-Tang Clan go to a diner and are surprised to be served by Bill Murray. It's really bizarre comedy, Bill is apparently working at the diner because he's in hiding for some reason and the things they say are just hilarious. It's the broadest piece in the film, but the combination of RZA and Bill Murray really works.

There's some slow parts, some pieces that don't work, but on the whole it's a really fun film that's worth it for the Bill Murray piece alone.

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