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Some Movies Rappers Should Reference Instead of ‘Scarface’.
SOHH listed a news item about a new Deniro/Pacino movie, inexplicably asking Styles P what he thought about this new, exciting movie. The item smacks of forced marketing; hyping a movie that isn’t overtly rap-related in content, using a rapper for a quote, etc. but nevertheless, Styles P’s comments were pretty interesting.

Styles discusses both actors’ appeal to “young impoverished people in the ghetto” citing their roles as “characters who came from nothing to become something” and suggesting that this shows they “understand the mentality of the poor”. You’re thinking ‘Goodfellas’ or ‘Scarface’ (or I was), but instead, Styles cites ‘Taxi Driver’ and a relatively obscure Pacino movie ‘The Panic in Needle Park’. These comments reminded me of my OhWord entry about Prodigy and blaxploitation. In it, I said Prodigy’s invocation of the Fred Williamson vehicle ‘Black Caesar’ makes more sense than the constant references to ‘Scarface,’ a quality but over-the-top cartoon of a movie. Most rap songs are not wish fulfillment but blow-by-blow descriptions, reflecting the minor victories of movies like ‘Superfly’ or ‘Black Caesar’ rather than the million dollars success of Tony Montana.

As a continuation of my post and a complement to Styles P’s comments, here’s a list of movies that rappers should probably start referencing…

Born To Win (1971).

Rap Album Equivalent: ‘Just Tryin Ta Live’ by Devin the Dude.

A former hairdresser now heroin addict named simply “J” putts around New York with his black friend Billy Dynamite, in search of drugs. More a series of scenes than a cohesive plot, ‘Born to Win’ is held together only by J, a hyper-charming piece of shit who always ends up on top. The movie can go from being deadly serious to ‘Benny Hill’ comedy and it all sort of works. At different points you feel like you’re watching different movies. When I first read that Styles P quote, this was the first movie I thought to add to this list. Although it doesn’t star Deniro or Pacino, Deniro has a very small part as an undercover cop. Available in a crappy but affordable discount DVD.

If you liked this try… Christiane F. (1981) – Teenage drug addicts in Berlin run around to David Bowie music!

Mean Streets (1973)

Rap Album Equivalent: ‘Return to 36 Chambers’ by Ol’ Dirty Bastard

You probably know about this one and maybe you even turned it off because you were expecting something closer to ‘Goodfellas’ well…give it another try. Deniro’s Johnny Boy is perhaps his most well-rendered “psycho” character, at least on par with ‘Taxi Driver’ as the acting never grows cartoonish or dependent upon indicating. When you see him blow up a mailbox with firecrackers all the way to the scene where he calls the bookie a “jerkoff”, kind of sealing his fate, there’s nothing like this wild performance. The movie is also full of really funny scenes that counter the menace that underscores it all: One of the neighborhood thugs shows everyone the tiger (?!) he bought and the scene grows even more absurd when the thug kisses the tiger like a puppy. Also the “mook” debate is pretty classic.

If you liked this try…Hi Mom! (1969) – One of the first movies by ‘Scarface’ director Brian DePalma and also starring Deniro.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Rap Album Equivalent: ‘What’s On My Mind’ by Dayton Family

Still derided as excessively violent and misogynistic (sound familiar?), Sam Peckinpah’s movie feels as stumbling drunk and fucked-up as the main character. Loser bar owner Benny (Warren Oates) needs money and takes up a reward for the titular head of Alfredo. Much of the movie is Benny driving around, in an increasingly bloodied/dirtied white suit, in shades, talking to the decapitated head of Alfredo and shooting everybody. Completely hopeless and fully aware of it, Benny comes off as a sort of brave, devoted, unfuckwithable loser. Maybe the best movie ever made?

If you liked this try…Cockfighter (1974) – Also starring Warren Oates, this time as a cockfighter who has taken a vow of silence until he wins ‘Cockfighter of the Year’.
Fingers (1978)

Rap Album Equivalent: ‘Resurrection’ by Common

Harvey Keitel plays the son of a pianist mother and a loan shark father (played by the dude who plays Pentangeli in ‘Godfather II’), unsure of which parent to follow. Sex-obsessed and conflicted beyond hope, Keitel’s Jimmy Fingers fucks girls, listens to doo-wop and classical music, auditions for piano recitals, and kicks the asses of deadbeats. Also interesting for quick appearances by a couple of dudes later to be on ‘The Sopranos’ and Jim Brown…rent it if only for the scene where Brown forces two girls to kiss and bangs their heads together!

If you liked this try… Five Easy Pieces (1970) – Another, earlier movie about a rogue male who is good at the piano.

Straight Time (1978)

Rap Album Equivalent: ‘Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed’ by Nice & Smooth.

Based on the book ‘No Beast So Fierce’ written by Edward Bunker (Mr. Blue in ‘Reservoir Dogs’), starring Dustin Hoffman as Max as a guy out of prison trying to go straight. At the mercy of his corrupt, asshole Parole Officer, Max ends up back in jail. When he gets back out, he steals his P.O’s car, handcuffs the P.O to a sign on the side of the road with his pants down (no really, he does!) and goes back to doing what he knows best: robbing jewelry stores.. Shot in realistic L.A locations with a bunch of good characters actors like Harry Dean Stanton and Gary Busey, ‘Straight Time’ glides along scene-by-scene, primarily concerned with detail and psychology over likeability and moral judgment.

If you liked this try…Straw Dogs (1971)– also starring Hoffman and from the same director as ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’; basically a movie about how sometimes violence is necessary.

Thief (1981)

Rap Album Equivalent: ‘Murda Muzik’ by Mobb Deep

The first feature by Michael Mann, who later made ‘Heat’ and ‘Miami Vice’ among others. ‘Thief’ stars James Caan as Frank, a professional thief with vague hopes of going straight. Caan is in full Sonny Corleone acting mode, speaking in contraction-less blurts of anger and just generally seeming awesome. An atmospheric electronic score by Tangerine Dream and a slow pace punctuated by scenes of violence and Caan rants, ‘Thief’ is what ‘Scarface’ should be.

If you liked this try…The Gambler (1974) – from the writer of ‘Fingers’ and also starring James Caan.

Written by Brandon

May 24th, 2007 at 3:32 am

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‘Miami Vice’ (Michael Mann, 2006) – Unrated Version.

The first thing to understand or accept about ‘Miami Vice’ is that it is incredibly confusing. My father gave up on it because he said he had no idea what was going on. The reason for ‘Miami Vice’ being so confusing is in part because Michael Mann knows why “plot” is stupid. Real-life, despite what Robert McKee might say, does not and cannot be explained in a conflict and resolution style. When it is presented this way, the world is idealized and simplified and you are left with characters speaking unrealistically with unrealistic motivations adjusted or tweaked to fit a plot. Real-life is a great deal more tangential and chaotic. Indeed, many of us have a routine or even a linear narrative to our everyday actions, but this is constantly interrupted by smaller but no-less significant things. For example, a prostitution sting at the beginning of ‘Miami Vice’ is briefly interrupted by Crockett (Colin Farrell) hitting on a waitress. That’s the kind of realism that Hollywood’s single-minded focus on plot and clarification generally forgets. Mann attempts to represent the chaos of real-life, a chaos that is magnified for two undercover cops by ignoring conventional expectations of motivation and plot. ‘Miami Vice’s plot begins before the movie starts and is only half-completed when the credits roll. For example, if you are watching the unrated version (which I recommend) the first scene is a speed-boat race. The camera pulls out of the water and the viewer encounters the boats mid-race. The race is not explained and I don’t even think we end up seeing who wins, it turns out to be part of a different case that is involves a prostitution sting. None of this is made explicit but it is exactly what makes the movie so good: You are in the movie along with the characters, receiving information or experiencing things along with them. Mann obviously wants you to feel what is going on rather than understand it. To enjoy ‘Miami Vice’ one has to be okay with an experience that is a bit closer to actual living, where you’re not always sure what is going on or only realize what is going on after the fact.

This presentation of life, as chaotic or messy, represents how Mann holds a strong disinterest in idealization or idealized forms of any kind and is a compulsive truth-teller. The scenes of violence are not stylish or hip like a Tarantino movie, they are incredibly quick and messy. Anyone that has seen ‘Heat’ is well aware of Mann’s interest in showing his audience what actual bullets actually do. The same attitude is taken in ‘Miami Vice’; heads explode, bodies are ripped apart. Most movies use gigantic budgets to change our ugly, regular world into an exciting, hyper-realistic movie set, Mann uses all of his energy and budget to render a world as dark and harsh as the one we live in. Colin Farrell is not allowed to be handsome, instead he is made to look like some hard-living Andre Agassi-looking Jimmy Buffett fan and Jamie Foxx is forced into a role that does not allow him to ham it up. Mann makes great attempts to make his actors look more realistic, uglier. Tubbs’ (Jamie Foxx) girlfriend in the movie is attractive but pretty in a way that is attainable. Crockett’s love interest, Isabella (Gong Li), has an incredibly thick accent that makes much of her dialogue hard to understand. Martin Scorsese’s movies are celebrated for their “grittiness” when in reality, he hasn’t made a film with a hint of realism in it since ‘Raging Bull’. If you have some free time, look up the real-life versions of Jimmy Burke or Frank Rosenthal and compare them to how Deniro looks in ‘Goodfellas’ or ‘Casino’. While Mann is certainly not documentary-realistic, it is interesting that he goes to such lengths to make his characters look so regular and even ugly: bad hair, goofy suits, chains, stubble.

This realism is apparent in the movie’s dirty, third-world settings but it is there in the glamorous Miami settings as well. I think the movie’s sections in Miami, set to constantly thumping music, bright colors, and stylish dress have been misinterpreted as celebratory. They are as realistically rendered as the sections of the movie that take place in South America, where we see the dirt and grime of the third-world and implicitly, the ravaging effects of drug-dealing on those that do not benefit from it. In Miami or in the dealers’ expensive homes, we see the rewards of the drug trade. The movie constantly bounces between this Miami glitz and third-world shit. This exercise in extremes is more than simplistic Hollywood filmmaking, it is the reality of the drug trafficking situation. There are those in power and those powerful people exploit and use as heavies, the average citizens of these countries. Mann even goes as far as to present the under-discussed reality of groups like the Aryan Nation in the drug trafficking world. He holds nothing back in his single-minded focus on realism.

Realism however, does not make a movie great and it is the strands of melancholy throughout ‘Miami Vice’ that move it in the direction of a strong and I hope, lasting movie. The world is closing-in and the audience feels it along with Crockett and Tubbs, but it is made particularly affecting through the simultaneous acknowledgment of this sad reality and actions made to combat this reality. Unlike Mann’s earlier movie, ‘Thief’ wherein the response to a world closing-in is fuck-all and blow it up, ‘Miami Vice’ gives you that fuck-all feeling without entirely losing hope. It is post-nihilistic, having accepted that the world is fucked and corrupt and trying to continue living with that reality by not giving up. ‘Miami Vice’ is about connection, about love and friendship, lost, found, and rediscovered as a way of responding to hopelessness. Despite all of the shit, you keep going by caring. The movie ends with some bad guys being shot and some good guys pulling-through, some even bigger bad guys escaping, and some hearts broken. All of the shit, good, bad, and somewhere in the middle, culminates in the final five minutes, perfectly set to Mogwai’s ‘Auto Rock’, leading to an incredibly moving climax wherein all of the aforementioned feelings are contained. The last shot is Crockett walking away from the camera, but unlike Frank in ‘Thief’ who turns his back to everything, Crockett is walking back to reunite with his partner.

‘Miami Vice’ was presented as and indeed, sort-of looks like a conventional action movie but it is instead, an incredibly independent and rarified creation. How did Mann get 135 million dollars to make this? How did they let him release it as it is? Wall-to-wall music, digital-video cinematography, numerous scenes of characters simply staring or looking sad, it’s really incredible. ‘Miami Vice’ is much more “independent” in the sense of being one man’s vision than ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ or many other ultra-safe “indie” movies. ‘Miami Vice’ is a hard-ass action movie with an incredibly sensitive tone. It is an ultra-glamorous style-fest with an incredibly realistic edge. It is a movie with two handsome leads made-up to look incredibly uncool and not handsome. I ask this question complimentary: Who is this movie for?

Written by Brandon

February 24th, 2007 at 7:19 am

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Rap Music and “Experimental” Music

I was dancing around this topic in my ‘Harmony in Ultraviolet’ review because I didn’t think many people think or care why Tim Hecker and Young Jeezy are similar musicians. As my girlfriend, kind-of default editor, and imminent contributor to this little blog said: “Who would [that entry] be for?” I’m not really sure. But, who’s reading this shit anyway?

While I was writing my Hecker review, I kept thinking of ‘The Inspiration’ and how ‘Inspiration’ and ‘Harmony…’ are more alike than any of the other albums I’ve written about. If I had to compare ‘The Inspiration’, I’d say it is sonically similar to Three-Six Mafia ‘Most Known Unknown’, ‘M83’s ‘Before the Dawn Heals Us’, and the aforementioned Hecker album. A weird group, but seriously: What makes Tim Hecker avant-garde and Young Jeezy (and his producers) stupid mainstream rap? The music is primarily created through sampling and electronics. Those soundtrack to ‘Thief’ whips and beeps on ‘Hypnotize’ sound a lot like the in-and-out helicopter-sounding whooshes that provide the backing to ‘Dungeoneering’. More importantly, the songs are after the same feeling: Some kind of claustrophobic, scary world-collapsing paranoia that occasionally breaks open into minor joy. The way ‘Dungeoneering’ lets up towards the end and segues into the next track is a lot like the feeling Jeezy provides with a defiant chorus or Shawty Red or Timbo provide the listener with through a change-up of the beat. What about those sub-level basstones that suddenly push forward on a lot of ‘The Inspiration’s tracks? Electronic music, especially the kind Hecker makes, is all production. The minor details and subtle shifts are what make it good. The organ stabs on ‘Whitecaps of White Noise I’ sound a lot like DJ Toomp’s now signature synth-tone. This stuff isn’t that different!

If we think of Jeezy’s album as a rap album but still, not that different from glitch or ambient electronic or whatever, then the whole “Bring lyricism back/Bring New York back” argument is trivial because an end-run around that argument has been made. Why must Jeezy be eloquent? Is he even rapping on ‘The Inspiration’? He’s just sort of saying stuff that occasionally, doesn’t even rhyme. All I know is, the total package, what Jeezy says, lyrical or not, coupled with the production, is a really satisfying musical experience. Jeezy’s just some guy saying some shit about what he knows. It is unfortunate that rappers are so closely tied to precedent and tradition, but its evern sadder that they are asked to cover all of their bases socially, politically, and ethically. These concerns with racial representation and social consciousness don’t and shouldn’t mean a thing to Jeezy. I’m not interested in only listening to stuff I already know about or stuff that I agree with. I’m Black Metal obsessed and most of those guys are screaming about some Heathen/Preserve-the-White race stuff that’s scary, but also awesome because it’s just some guy in Norway pouring his heart into his music. Even if he’s pouring his heart into music that promotes church-burning. I think the first step towards this disinterest in purity of genre, while still being deathly afraid of “fusion”- could come about if more people realized what is going on in mainstream rap and gave these guys some credit. If ‘Wire Magazine’ had any balls, if the magazine was honestly interested in “adventures in modern music” and dropped their elitism, their rap coverboys wouldn’t be lames like MF Doom or Edan. Three-Six Mafia would have made the cover a decade ago. So would The Neptunes and Timbaland, even Jazze Pha or Kanye West. Are Broadcast or Boards of Canada more “adventurous” than a Phizzle production like ‘So What’? The magazine’s year-end list might include ‘Late Registration’ or something, but it’s more like them conceding to it so they don’t look totally out of touch. There isn’t anything spectacular about Edan, he’s entirely a throwback and I guess that’s cool or post-innovative or something, but I think it’s just annoying. The rap music that sells (not Edan), the rap music so many people have a problem with, is really, really good and forward-thinking and yes, “experimental”. More experimental than the “underground”. Noz wrote on this topic better than I ever could, particularly his passage on how “weird” rap music is. Go check it out: ‘The Good Die Mostly Over Bullshit Post-Rap Side Projects’.I sort of wish one of those anthologies like the Dave Eggers-edited ‘The Best American Non-Required Reading’ anthologies existed for the best web-based rap writing. This Noz article would make it. So would Peter Macia’s review of Little Brother’s ‘The Minstrel Show’ because if this rap-blogging stuff ever means something to anyone, I feel like that review was sort of a significant, throwing down the gauntlet. And yeah, if I were the editor of some sort of rap-blog anthology, it would be so Wigster your ‘Morehouse Class of 94’ Reunion’ commemorative kufi would fucking spin.

Written by Brandon

December 31st, 2006 at 11:29 pm