Saturday, October 30, 2010

Rhymin' and Crimin'

Hip Hop and crime movies have been a match made in hell since the earliest days of old school rap but Masterpieces like Boyz in the Hood and New Jack City  have slowly been supplanted by limited vanity projects and barely watchable straight to video dreck.

There have been a few authentic masterpieces that advanced both the crime film genre and the artistic boundaries of Hip Hop as well.  Today we'll look at two gems, lesser known except among the cognoscenti.
"I think you know that there's no such thing as an American anymore. No Hispanics, no Japanese, no blacks, no whites, no nothing. It's just rich people and poor people. The three of us are all rich, so we're on the same side"

Deep Cover released in 1992 is an overlooked oddity that never really got the audience it deserved.  With a theme of tortured moral ambiguity and the existential terror of ethical compromise it also features a brilliantly appropo old school Dr Dre soundtrack and the introduction of a rapper known then as Snoop Doggy Dogg on the title track

Laurence Fishburne is the hero and poetic narrator, a fiercely straight edge cop compensating for the childhood pain of watching his drug addicted father gunned down on Christmas day with an iron self control.  A sleazy DEA agent tells him his 'criminal personality type' makes him perfect for undercover work and reluctantly at first he sets himself up as a drug dealer to bring down a cocaine network that traces back to a South American politician.

The neo-blaxploitation stylized film-making of Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem) builds and maintains a dark atmosphere of moral dread as Fishburne's character hooks up with a corrupt lawyer played with edgy intensity by Jeff Goldblum, a successful family man with a yearning need for a gangsta lifestyle, who want's his cake and eat it too.

Lines blur, loyalty is tested and Fishburne's narration gets more and more lyrical and intense.  Some amazing dramatic set pieces, tight wire over the top performances and thoughtful political and philosophical speculation make this a film you can watch multiple times and find something new every time.

"It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream. When you have something like a nightmare, you will wake up and tell yourself that it was only a dream. It is said that the world we live in is not a bit different from this."

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai from 2001 is a masterpiece of slow burn suspense and dramatic artifice.  Director Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Down by Law) never makes the same movie twice, artistically and musically he always stretches boundaries with his films.

Ghost Dog takes the martial arts movie fantasy world of Wu Tang Clan alum RZA who does the soundtrack and tells a darkly lyrical story about the power to choose the world we inhabit.

The hero played with sleepy eyed intensity by Forest Whitaker is either a crazy assassin who lives on a roof top with pigeons and kills people for the Mafia, or he is a dedicated warrior, committed body and soul to the melancholy death worshiping code of the ancient samurai as laid out in the classic 17th century Japanese text Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. Quotes by Whitaker from the book are interspersed throughout the film and are offered as a mournful poetic counterpoint to the ambiguity of the main character.  He serves an unworthy gangster master who once saved his life, a moment of essential defining purity for Ghost Dog, but a casual throwaway whim on the part of the gangster.

There's a lot of sly humor, Ghost Dog's best friends are a Haitian Ice Cream salesman, and most of their translated conversations consist of  good natured misunderstanding; "I'm sorry, I don't speak English" in response to "I'm sorry I don't speak French" and a little girl waiting for the book that will change her life. The elderly fading mobsters offer the most laughs, ancient Italian Mafiosi obsessed with old school rap and cowboys and Indians.

The theme is simple.  Your identity, your code, your very reality is what you choose it to be, and just because you live in modern day New York doesn't mean you can't choose to be a Samurai living by an ancient code of honor.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sleeping Through the End

The Walking Dead hasn't even officially aired yet and already some commentators are sniffing that the opening seems awfully similar to the opening of 28 Days Later.

This is, of course, true.

In 28 Days Later bike courier Jim, in hospital with a head injury from a car meets bike courier accident wakes up out of a coma to find the hospital and seemingly all of London are completely abandoned. Death and destruction are everywhere, and ultimately it turns out that ravening hordes of horribly transformed normal people are slavering for his blood.


In The Walking Dead (Both comic book and TV series) Rick, a police officer in hospital after being critically injured in a shoot out wakes up out of a coma to find the hospital and seemingly all of his home town are completely abandoned. Death and destruction are everywhere, and ultimately it turns out that ravening hordes of horribly transformed normal people are slavering for his blood.

So yeah, kind of similar.

But what the nitpickers don't realize is that 'sleeping through the apocalypse' is actually a recurring trope that has appeared many times.  In fact 28 Days Later was specifically referencing the classic John Wyndham novel turned multiple movie and TV adaptions The Day of the Triffids

The hero Bill Mason, is in hospital getting treatment for an eye injury that has temporarily blinded him.  So his eyes are covered with bandages when almost everyone else raptly watches a bizarre meteor shower that lights up the skies all over the world.  The next morning everyone who did is permanently blind while Mason can see as soon as he takes off his bandages.  His awakening in hospital surrounded by the terrified newly blind and stalked by horrific monsters is strongly reflected in the first quarter of 28 Days Later.

Ultimately the sleeping through the apocalypse trope is useful to writers because it allows them to plunge directly into the post apocalyptic action without having to explicate the apocalypse itself.  Plus the audience is introduced to the new reality at the same time as the hero is, encouraging identification with his baffled terror.

Other examples range from the Twilight Zone classic episode 'Time Enough at Last', the short lived Gene Roddenberry series Genesis II, the zombie move Night of the Comet and too many other examples to count.

Worry about the similarities between 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead if you want - or you could just enjoy a great thrilling zombie series on the small screen every week.

I know which option I'm picking.

UPDATE: Heh.  AMC aren't too worried about the comparison.  They ran 28 Days Later right after the repeat performance of the premiere episode on Friday Nov 5.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Planet Vancouver

I love how every fantasy or science fiction show on TV lately is a long game of 'Spot the Vancouver landmark'.

No that isn't the headquarters of alternate dimension Fringe Division, it's the downtown Vancouver Public Library.

It's futuristic, neoclassical coliseum look has naturally, also been glimpsed in Battlestar Galactica and Caprica helping make that Greco-Roman mytho link of the stories part of the visual tone of the shows.  Other examples of the glassy modernistic architecture of Vancouver like the UBC Museum of Anthropology also appear regularly.

Lots of back alleys, stretches of lonely highway and beachfront broodiness in Supernatural are familiar to anyone who's ever spent any time on the lower mainland - and just the constant gray sky light and unrelenting rain in recent episodes of Caprica and whole seasons of the X Files are pure British Columbia. 

It's enough to get all misty for the town I grew up in.

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