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Things Have Changed, Snitch. Monday Movies Is In Charge Now.

One kind of movie accomplishes great effects by finding a rich setting and sitting still in it. Consider David Gordon Green’s debut, George Washington. Another kind of movie is the ensemble piece that again, subordinates the clockworks of plot in favor of a mounting atmospheric pressure, like Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam. That film’s meager storylines accumulated momentum by being set against serial killer David Berkowitz’s New York rampage, the bicentennial, and a heat wave. Tanya Hamilton’s understated indie drama, Night Catches Us, walks its unique subject matter–the fallout in black communities from the fall of the Black Panther Party–outside the bounds of conventional storytelling, and in its stronger moments, creates atmospheric elements that suggest these other two films.

At its center, Night Catches Us tells the story of three people connected to and recovering from the height of the Black Power movement during its aftermath. Marcus is returning to Philadelphia in 1976 after a long time away. Patricia has remained there, becoming a criminal defense attorney. “Do’Right” has too, becoming a thug. Do’Right blames Marcus for selling out their mutual friend Neal (and Patricia’s husband) to the police, who shot him to death in a raid after he killed a police officer. That’s when Marcus left town.

A critical, though peripheral, role is played by Patricia’s nephew Jimmy, for whom Neal lives on as a martyr. As the world becomes crueler and more seemingly dominated by abusive white policemen, Jimmy exhumes the militant spirit of the Panthers, eventually sporting a beret and, fatefully, a gun.

The storytelling is slow but visually lush. Hamilton has a keen eye for urban forests. The credits suggest that the picture was shot entirely in the city of Philadelphia, but the city blocks are treetopped and weedy, and children play in hidden creeks.

Amid the atmospherics hides a potboiler–a triangle built on secrets and mistrust, a tinderbox city, an angry kid with a gun. Night Catches Us‘s reserve in deploying those elements isn’t entirely to its credit. Here, history is a hangover, a memory painful in its proximity but equally immobilizing. The treatment of crime, community and the law in the wake of Black Power is sophisticated, even-handed, and sad (not to mention found nowhere else in contemporary American film), but the sociological portrait is almost too close up to allow the story to flow from character and action. The graceful atmospherics stifle the story. It’s a shame, but not a disqualifying one.

Coming Attractions: Read the Book or Watch the Movie? featuring We Need To Talk About Kevin vs. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Also: Ludicrous, or Ludicrous and Unwatchable? featuring Thor vs. MI4: Ghost Protocol! Which is Monday Movies’ way of saying we had a little more time to watch than to write this week.

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December 26, 2011 - Posted by | boredom, Monday Movies | , ,

4 Comments

  1. 12/19/11 – Yojimbo – Kurosawa 1961 9/10
    12/20/11 – Final Take – Yamada 1984 6/10
    12/21/11 – Cedar Rapids – Arteta 2011 5/10
    12/22/11 – Nanayo – Kawase Naomi 2008 6/10
    12/23/11 – Tange Sazen and Million Ryo Pot – Yamanaka 1935 8/10
    12/24/11 – Woman in the Dunes – Teshigahara 1964 8/10
    12/25/11 – Kochiyama Soshun – Yamanaka 1937 9/10

    This time, the commentary on Y. Yojimbo and Sanjuro are a fascinating pair, S being much more realistic than the obvious fantasy Y. Y & S can show us the K was not making “Japanese Westerns” because Shogunate Japan was much better organized and hierarchical than the American Old West and the lone ronin is simply not comparable to the lone gunslinger. Only in an obvious fantasy. OTOH, it is my position that the Japanese yakuza (and HK triad movies) movies are more comparable to Westerns (cops are scarce and useless) and the “Samurai movies” can be better compared to American gangster movies, which do take place in a structured society.

    It had been a year since I had seen the Yamanaka trilogy, so I gave myself an Xmas present, Three masterpieces, of accelerating accomplishment, ending with Humanity and Paper Balloons. And then Yamanaka was drafted, sent to China, and died at age 28. Most of his work is lost. This time, I better appreciated the leftist theater troope he worked with.

    The Kawase has gotten a lot of criticism for festival pleasing exoticism and anti-colonialism. But I liked it.

    Comment by bob mcmanus | December 26, 2011

  2. We watched “Death at a Funeral” last night because, apparently, there’s nothing on TV on Christmas day but sports and burning logs. I am not a fan of either Chris Rock or Martin Lawrence, but we have liked Peter “Angry Elf” Dinklage for quite some time. Overall, the movie was neither funny nor good, with some poor casting choices. James Franco would have been better was the hallucinogenic high fiancé than whoever the skinny white guy was who played that part. It was more than a little sad how they kept referring to Dinklage as “the man in the leather jacket.” Apparently they are too polite to refer to him as short–but homophobic gay jokes are totally cool–although he may have been the only person wearing a leather jacket. I don’t know. The “poop scene” with Tracey Morgan was funny, as was the reference to the scene when the funeral finally took place. Otherwise, it was standard “black comedy” where “black” means “African-American” and not “dark.” Because you know you are dealing with a comedy when all the black people are super-rich and you know you are dealing with a drama when they are all poor criminals, living in the projects and subsiding on government cheese.

    Comment by Craig McFarlane | December 26, 2011

  3. Last night, we watched Midnight in Paris, which was better than the reviews had led me to believe. Overall, we felt that many of the reviewers — though not Josh, of course — had fallen into the trap of taking the film too seriously, when it was meant primarily as a light-hearted amusement. Owen Wilson does a good job of playing the Woody Allen character without simply doing a Woody Allen impression. The relationship between him and his fiance isn’t really believable — why would they have even started dating in the first place, much less gotten engaged? — but I did find it funny that she was more “French” than him in expecting him to just get over her affair with the pedantic guy.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | December 27, 2011

  4. The best essay I have read on Yamanaka Sadao is by Chris Fujiwara. Just google the two names if you want it.

    Humanity and Paper Balloons is not a great translation of Ninjo kami fusen partly because “Humanity” has too many meanings in English, and partly because there is no connective word to or no. “empathy, kindness, sympathy” is what one dictionary tells me

    Better might be Empathy Paper Balloons with only a haiku connection.

    We understand paper balloons well enough:light, cheap children’s toys, fragile, disposable. In Japan, they are associated with the lower classes, a means of income for the most desperate, like bamboo cricket cages.

    Comment by bob mcmanus | December 27, 2011


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