Archives for posts with tag: Mary J. Blige

Naturally, everyone prefers a pleasurable moviegoing experience to a sharply unpleasant one; and yet, as adventurous, seasoned, and discriminating cinephiles already know, there is something instructive and salutary in an occasional trip to cinema’s Dark Side and a philosophically minded sojourn in the Movie House of Pain.  This is the tenebrous, nightmarish place (think Hellraiser and picture hooks and chains slowly swaying and clinking in unfathomable darkness) where nothing worthwhile is ever projected, where filth alone adorns the screen, and where Boredom and Loathing wait like lewdly lip-licking Cenobites to bind and eviscerate the viewer.  These are the experiences, after all, which give good and great movies their significance, just as, without the darkness, light itself would be impossible.

A case in point is Betty and Coretta, a Canadian-made Lifetime Network movie about Betty Shabazz (Mary J. Blige) and Coretta Scott King (Angela Bassett), the respective widows of martyred rabble rousers Malcolm X and Martin King.  Superfluous beyond belief, this most recent hosanna out of the Martin King Cult is exactly the film one would expect it to be: a stoic, vapid, stylistically sterile, and self-congratulatory cardboard reenactment of highlights from the lives of two not particularly fascinating women as they bravely continue to live their lives whole decades after the touted events that made them even tangentially relevant to anyone other than themselves – much of it punctuated, of course, by a soundtrack of the obligatory soulful moaning.

Considering the inconsequential nature of the women’s stories following their husbands’ deaths, Betty and Coretta understandably suffers from a lack of interesting event or forward narrative momentum.  Follow Coretta Scott King as she boldly faces reporters who have the nerve to question her about the FBI recordings.  Follow Betty Shabazz as she bravely raises a daughter troubled by nightmares after her father’s murder. Follow Coretta Scott King as she graciously gives multiple inspiring speeches and lobbies to get a holiday named after her husband.  Follow Betty Shabazz as she boldly hosts her own radio talk show.  Follow Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz as they admirably persevere, eat lunch, exchange brave mothering insights, move on up, and boldly shop for shoes together.  Betty’s public accusation that Louis Farrakhan (Alex C. Askew) had a hand in Malcolm X’s murder is as confrontational as the movie ever gets, and even this subplot fails to engage.

Worse, screenwriters Ron Hutchinson and Shem[p?] Bitterman’s script is rock-hard stale bread all the way, with Coretta Scott King sounding every time she opens her mouth as if she suspects the pious stenographers of black historical destiny may be hiding behind a curtain and recording her every word, calling her husband a “vessel for greatness” and arguing that “we need to consecrate his legacy.”  Angela Bassett’s wooden performance perfectly mirrors the empty verbiage she recites, and Malik Yoba is just as boring as Great Doctor Junior Himself.  Mary J. Blige fares better in her role, coming across much more naturally, but the dialogue does the actress no favors.  Lindsay Owen Pierre is unworthy of note as Malcolm X, and Ruby Dee, who narrates the film as a pseudo-documentary interviewee, gives evidence of incipient senility as she delivers her lines in halting, awkward syllables and sometimes even appears to read from cue cards as her eyes dart unsettlingly from side to side.

A star and a half.  Ideological Content Analysis, after being stretchered out of the Movie House of Pain like a wounded and bloodied trooper, indicates that Betty and Coretta is:

8. Pro-bastard.  Betty’s daughter keeps it real and skips the marriage bit.

7. Anti-gun.  Betty’s daughter has nightmares about men with guns.

6. Anti-miscegenation.  Betty’s daughter’s white live-in guyfriend, as if wiping his nose before offering to shake hands with Betty is not bad news enough already, also turns out to be a dastardly spy for the FBI.

5. Selectively anti-state.  The FBI is an antagonist, as are the congressmen who oppose the creation of the national King holiday.  (All the FBI probably needs, though, is a quota system, for it to become a tool for progress.)

4. Egalitarian.  Coretta campaigns for “economic justice” and identifies poverty as one of the evils plaguing America.

3. Statist/pro-NWO.  “Can you believe it?” Betty says, exasperated.  “Another round of budget cuts.  When are taxpayers gonna learn?  Pay a little now or a whole lot later.”  The film opens with witness to history Ruby Dee gushing at the momentous dedication of a King statue by President B.O.  Coretta longs for “a new world [order], a just world, a world dedicated to fayuhness and equality for awl.”  The UN is referenced as a weapon for forcing social change in America.

2. Feminist/black uber alles.  “You don’t need a man to survive,” Betty tells a student.  “You just need some trainin’ so you can get a good job.”  Addressing herself to black women, Coretta defiantly intones, “Weeee awwww a powuhful fawss.”

1. Anti-racist (i.e., pro-yawn).  Imagine that.  And yet, in an unintentional irony, as soon as Betty has enough money, she gets “a nice home, away from the city [and her fellow blacks, presumably], where Betty could give her children the sheltered life she had dreamed of.”  Still, “Every time a neighbor see us, they think we gone blow somethin’ up.”  Bigots!

BettyPin2

You know when a film begins with a busload of strangers joining in a corny rendition of “Sister Christian” that you’re in for a high-camp moviegoing experience, and Rock of Ages certainly doesn’t disappoint in that department.  The tale of an innocent Tulsa bimbo who casts caution to the wind to try to become a singing sensation in picturesquely sleazy L.A., Rock of Ages is definitely true to the 80s at least in its willingness to plunge into the over-the-top outbursts of feeling at any moment, and is never ashamed of being what it is: essentially a feature-length narrative music video version of a Broadway musical and a love letter to the long-gone but not forgotten hard rock and power ballads of the time.

Full of energetic visual orchestration in scenes lit with wonderfully period-faithful pinks and blues, it achieves a greater emotional impact by setting itself in the late 80s, when hard hair rock was still at the top but about to go into eclipse as the 90s loomed, like a snapshot of a great civilization on the verge of collapse.  What sounds on paper like an utter waste of celluloid – and I’ll confess to having gone into this one expecting a shamelessly cutesy mercenary rock wreck – actually ends up being flawless and instantly classic.  The songs, with obvious affection, have been selected and utilized thoughtfully, contributing integrally to the storytelling and character development.  Visually as well as sonically sharp, Rock of Ages is fine-tuned cinema, so that the unsung stars of Rock of Ages are the choreography, art direction, and especially the editing, which weaves the meaningful singing, dancing, and involving melodrama into a beat-perfect winner.

The emotional centerpiece of the film may be Tom Cruise and Malin Akerman’s duet rendition of “I Want to Know What Love Is”, which manages not only to be rousing musical moment, but also a genuinely touching, sexy, and humorous lovemaking scene.  Watch it and you, too, may find yourself wanting to know what love is.  Verging on absolute crudity but simultaneously heart-stabbingly sweet, this is romance as it ought to be filmed: creatively, dangerously, and with a true sense of supernatural abandon and harmonious wonder.

So much is right with Rock of Ages that I’m willing to forgive and even embrace its various eccentricities.  For one thing, the cast down to the last man is made up of people I never would have imagined I wanted to see in a tribute to 80s rock.  A special “What Am I Doing in This Movie?” Award goes to Mary J. Blige, who  nonetheless lends vocal heft and an air of experience in her role as the manager of a strip club where Julianne Hough lands a gig.  Cruise, at least, is an iconic 80s actor, and thus would seem to be only vaguely relevant to the material; but the casting of Cruise turns out to have been the perfect choice as he channels just the right mix of cocky success and sexiness gone to seed with untapped human depth, so that his performance ends up being one of the film’s major endearments.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Paul Giamatti offer high-caliber ham antagonism of the Tipper Gore sanctimoniousness and soulless corporate parasite varieties, respectively, with Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston rounding out the villainy as L.A.’s crooked mayor determined to kill the strip at the bidding of his prudish wife.  Fresh-faced Diego Boneta, meanwhile, is cute and compelling as a bar band  singer longing for rock godhood as “Wolfgang von Colt”.  Julianne Hough’s singing may be slightly too faux-soulful and Britney-bratty to be exactly faithful to the 80s, but she’s touchingly sweet and plays a naive Oklahoma girl convincingly.

Harmless but also anachronistic and not really relevant to 80s rock as its fans would probably prefer to remember it is the wholly superfluous gay romance at the movie’s margin, inserted for nothing but cheap chuckles and propaganda apparently.  If you ever wanted to see an adorably slovenly, in-need-of-a-shave Alec Baldwin kiss a man, though, Rock of Ages is definitely your fix, with adorable Russell Brand being the lucky guy in this case.  (Oddly enough, Rock of Ages isn’t Baldwin’s first man-man mouth action, since he did the same, albeit with different motivation, in 1992’s Prelude to a Kiss.)

More dark and satanic content in this film, along the lines of Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny, would have been nice, but since Rock of Ages is primarily a film about love and rock’s redemptive power, it might have been a distraction. I also would like to have seen even more and bigger big hair on the women, but that is a somewhat minor complaint.  I’ve watched Rock of Ages eight times so far and I always discover something new.  An enthusiastic 5 stars.  See it and remember: don’t stop believing!

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Rock of Ages is:

6. Drug-ambivalent

5. Proudly gay

4. Anti-state

3. Anti-Christian

2. Pro-liberty

1. Pro-rock (though the argument could be made that, by transforming heavy metal into a song-and-dance show, the film has actually neutered rock by (almost) rendering it safe for the family).

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