Wednesday, November 25

The Girl is Dangerous

It is gospel, backed up statistically, that when a black girl squares up against a girl from, well, any other race (except the Russians, too cold to flinch really, numbed reflexes maybe), the other girl will back off and most probably turn and run. In London, I see it everywhere- women on buses and very often men in the street will cower like backed-up quarry when a black girl raises her voice; girls on reality TV shows on the much-revered BET channel know what time it is when a weave-haired black girl utters the immortal lines "Oh no, she di'n't" with appropriate glottal stops; and people everywhere are aware that the aphorism "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" has been modified for the purposes of racial neutrality. The correct expression, "Hell hath no fury like a (black) woman scorned" is the one more enshrined in public consciousness.

As a part-time anthropologist, I have always wondered at this behavioural quirk in my sistuhs everywhere. Where did it all start, is the pertinent question? I have searched high and low for an answer that is logically and anecdotally satisfying, scoured all the relevant research on the subject (Please see Winnie Mandela's memoirs for facts and figures). I even spend a  lot of time in social sampling. Without making it too obvious, I pose the question to black women everywhere to guage their response, maybe to gain some first-hand insight from the horse's mouth (please my sistuhs, the reference is purely idiomatic). The question is: Why are black women so damn dangerous?

I try to watch at least five movies a week. In a really frenzied week, because I have the movie bug and I have it badIy I will watch in excess of seven movies in a Christian week, working out at more than one a day. This means that unavoidably I will stumble across old classics, new revelations and some really week-ruining events (I hope I never get to meet whomever made that film You Don't Mess With The Zohan, because I will try to speak my mind but all that will come out is puke). Happily, I stumbled onto the 1996 hit movie Set It Off  by F. Gary Gray in the last week. This movie is one that all my friends were talking about when we were all waiting to hit puberty and we spent all our time idolising people who spoke their minds and displayed contempt for society. Those girls, Vivica Fox, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett with their foul mouths and foul attitudes were the epitome of a form of delinquency, if I may call it that, that was intoxicating at the time.

Fox has since gone on to fade into legend, Queen Latifah has matured into an Oscar-Winning maternal sort of actress, and Jada Pinkett still makes a living out of a tight butt and a tight mouth. But with that 1996 movie, they gave black girls everywhere the boldness, the craziness, the blank canvas to paint out a vision of aggressive resourcefulness that continues to be replicated from the streets of Surulere to the projects of New York City. Vivica Fox who plays 'Frankie' degenerates from a gentle pleading bank teller to a die-hard (in every sense of the word) bank robber before our dangling eyes. Jada Pinkett, who had the guts to carry the name 'Stony', is oiling up her boyfriend's back in one scene and popping caps in asses the next. All the while, they are talking smack like WWE goons without giving a *&%! who is listening in.

Of course back then, young as we were, nobody really paid much attention to the main theme of fighting  a system that agitated the poor and a police force so ruthless they did not think twice about wasting a blameless, unarmed teenage boy while looking for somebody completely different, all because they both shared a similar haircut. We didn't care about those serious motifs that set the tone for the violence and the oppressed response of these women. All we cared about was that Queen Latifah (as 'Cleo') was strutting about in a vest totting Smith & Wesson pistols and trash talking the hell out of everyone in close contact with the air she breathed. I know guys who wanted to be Cleo then. For goodness' sake I still know guys who want to be Cleo, even if they won't admit it.

Now, black women the world over have the right to roll up their sleeves and use the precedent set by these imaginary characters to their advantage. I have seen big men, over six fet of muscle-bound menace, shrink away from a black woman's fast-clicking tongue (I am not referring to myself here people). Just two weeks ago, a black girl, all five-foot-nothing of her was squared up to a man twice her size in front of a departing train at Waterloo underground station. Violence radiated from her eyes. The gentleman had somehow fallen backwards off the train as the doors shut, taking her with him, and she was letting him know just how small she thought his winky was and what she planned to do with it if he did not skedaddle. The man would have crushed her. She did not care. He walked away, with a tremor in his knees.

And Hollywood remains faithful to this impression of the black woman- brash, unrestrained and ready to pick a fight at any given time. Just see the Scary Movie franchise if you need a black female stereotype update, or go ahead and watch the MTV show, I Love New York. If not I can give you mobile numbers for some of my friends, who will educate you, accordingly.

Nigerian women, who have all the copyrights and patents filed under "I don't care if I am under duress, I must be true to my tongue", may argue that Set It Off has nothing to do with it. Years of heat and sweat have congealed into a thick caustic paste that flies out, pepper-hot, with every word they utter. But we must all admit that that film had a lot to do with it, even if it only institutionalised the vehemence.

Ah, now I remember this started out as a movie review. Seven stars out of ten for Set It Off, which is one of those films I think would have been classic but for the predominantly black cast and the Thelma & Louise- esque feel to it. The story, though hackneyed, is fully-realised and the acting is taut. More importantly you feel the emotion, you feel it as if you're right there with them in midtown LA, and you get caught up in each and every character. I appreciate cinema like that. Most of all you come away satisfied at the resolution of the question that everyone of us has asked at some point in our lives. Yeah, go ahead and blame 'Stony' and 'Cleo' and 'Frankie' (not so much 'Titi').

PS Blair Underwood For President.

Leading Ladies #2- Cate Blanchett and that voice

Any movie character who gets the kind of introduction 'Galadriel' gets in the first of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring) will do well to match that expectation. Elves assured of their protection in her power, esconced in a deeply wooded forest, with whispered words of warning to the ragtag army that is the Fellowship, all herald her first appearance in possibly the greatest film franchise ever. For me it wasn't just my first sighting of Cate Blanchett in the series, it was my first sighting of her, period.You could count The Talented Mr Ripley which I once watched while drifting in and out of sleep on an airplane. I'm told that she was in that film and didn't do her reputation any bad either for it. But all I remember about that particular film is my fourteen year- old brain (thirsty for blockbuster action- Vin Diesel) musing on the fact that Matt Damon was acting rather peculiarly for a large portion of the drama.

In that one scene, where Cate Blanchett tries to seduce the all-powerful ring from Frodo the dwarf (Hobbit, as the PC lobby reminds us), she sold me on her prowess the minute she opened her mouth. It is not often that you will give an actor points for their voice, not unless they are faking it like Marlon Brando who made Don Corleone's falsetto the most memorable vocal turn in cinema history. After all, Lonardo DiCaprio is rated one of the most fitting leading men in Hollywood today, despite sounding like a choirgirl. Yet, it goes without saying that Cate Blanchett has one of the most recognisable voices on the silver screen. Her larynx is a professional instrument.

It's not that she rounds off every vowel with a swaggering drawl the way Jack Nicholson does, glory be, and she doesn't have the affected enunciation of Alan Rickman, ladling spoonfuls of ironic emphasis onto affixed syllables just so. But Cate Blanchett can inflect arrogance, mystery, and as in The Lord of the Rings, raw power without the viewer ever noticing that she has flipped the switch. Perhaps this perfect pitch has something to do with her theatre training, and it does, but even in interviews where the need to project is absent, when she is no longer playing a role, Cate Blanchett retains the remarkable ability to sound as if everything she says is poetry, and with no trace of drama.

In that scene, Cate Blanchett gave the star performance of that movie. I know the CGI went a touch loopy with all the gimmicky colours and the facial contortion and all that stuff diector Peter Jackson was throwing at the screen. If you ask me, Galadriel's voice had enough special effects to carry it through. Later, when I got around to watching Elizabeth I, where she gives a masterclass in acting, I caught myself in this imaginary moment where I felt like I was blowing backwards in the force of her sound. The woman is magnificent.

On top of that, she has won countless awards and has a very womanly beauty that goes far beneath the skin. It is a refined pulchritude, as with a thoroughbred horse. Those high cheekbones and intelligent eyes and lips that can intimidate or entrance alternately, merely by the twisting. I personally think this Australian actress has a look that can be worked any which way: the kind of actress who could play the dizzy blonde lead in Legally Blonde or come off equally well as a dark vampire with a primitive streak. But she almost always chooses roles that emphasise strong female characters, however troubled they may be she makes them convincing and makes sure you leave the cinema, or your sofa, transfixed.

This may be my only question about her. How come she never plays enough fun upbeat roles on the screen? Why does she not don a costume and play a superhero, or act in a comedy or something like that? I guess we could look to The Bandits, a comedy crime caper with Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton, in which she plays the meddling accomplice. Sadly, it did not resonate with moviegoers. In the upcoming Robin Hood movie, due out next year, she plays Maid Marian. That might turn out a refreshing change of pace from her modus operandi, but with the reputedly difficult Russell Crowe as the anti-heroic do-gooder I'm not so sure that's what we'll get. It remains to be seen.

Anyway, I have noticed that this has become an extended eulogy but I won't forget to add that Blanchett turned in a superb bit of acting as Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' biopic I'm Not There that was so good I thought it better than her unbelievable Oscar-winning rendition of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, a role which she was warned against taking because of the size of Hepburn's personality. Watch both movies to understand what I am going on about, if you do nothing else this Christmas.

TRIVIA: Cate Blanchett has been married only once, and is still married to Andrew Upton, a writer with whom she currently heads up the Sydney Theatre Company as artistic director. She's a natural redhead (surprise, surprise).

NEXT WEEK: Sanaa Lathan and those handles

Wednesday, November 18

If I Ever Wrote A Superhero

Has anybody ever thought about what kind of superhero they would like to be? More than likely, the answer from a poll of this question would tally a resounding yes. I know of friends of mine who dream of becoming Wolverine, other stranger friends who I am sure would like to be able to transform into Jem or whatever those barbie-esque lady heroes were called. On my own part I've always tried to consider what kind of superhero I could come up with.

Hollywood is going through a phase, at present, where it's chasing after comic-book heroes in an era where real-life heroes are non- existent or else blighted by the recession with all the doom and gloom surrounding it. Escapism is rife and has been for the better part of this blossoming century, as people delve back into the simple happinesses of their childhoods. As a result, superhero movies are bigger, better and ever present, fine-tuned to cater to an ever- expanding audience that has grown to encompass not only the original geeky fanboys but also discerning cinemagoers seeking a means to avoid the drudgery of eeryday life. Directors have now exhausted the marquee characters with Spiderman, Superman, Batman and the X-Men getting recent makeovers for a generation that likes its heroes brooding, existential and conflicted. So it has become necessary to plunder comic lore for more niche titles to keep the bandwagon playing along, albeit without much merriment (cue Joker hiss: 'Why SO Serious-uh?'). The ultra-violent noirish take on Watchmen last year came after the successes of films like Sin City and 300, which was ultimately a comic book (okay, okay, graphic novel sheesh) adaptation regardless of what the swords-and-sandals epic lobby might want to tell you.

In the coming year, as has been heavily reported, we will see the advent of Green Lantern to herald the upgrade of other comic book characters running the gauntlet from the camp Captain America through the cult favourite Afro Samurai and on to a proposed Justice League super- blockbuster. The genre has never been in ruder health. Needless to mention, there have been pros and cons, winners and duds, good elements and pure radioactive fallout from this boom in animated heroes. Sometimes ardent cinema fans and diehard comic book devotees alike have had to suffer through the sort of lullaby that Frank Miller's debut solo effort The Spirit turned out to be. At other times, a director has pulled out of the hat a reworking of a familiar protagonist so protagonist as to be considered to have broken the mould. Step forth Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight which unlocked the full mesmeric potential of Heath Ledger, now of blessed memory, and an ensemble cast who are the only superhero collective to have outperformed the splendid work of the X-Men trilogy.

What remains to be seen is if a superhero can be created specifically for the screen. Of course there are pitfalls to this notion. Such an attempt, heroic as it may be (pun intended) will have to be so thoroughly unique to even pass muster with the Hollywood bigwigs who decide if to shell out for a script. In the past we have had Hancock, an iconoclastic sort with a drinking habit and a foul temper. This achieved some box-office success but not the sort of accession to the pantheon of cinema greatness it desired. I also remember Damon Wayans' madcap attempt with Blankman, a nerd who discovers a way to make a super bulletprof suit, back when he was still big news on the Hollywood grapevine. That movie fell short in many ways (even though I have fond childhood recollections of Blankman's spasmodic reaction when the hot girl tries to kiss him) but mostly because it failed to engage properly with the scale of the escapist's need- superheroes have to be larger, much larger than life.

Anyway, coming finally to the thrust of this piece, my idea for a superhero is not SuperPoet as some who know me might suggest: The Man who bores villains to death by reading Shakespeare and tossing sharpened ball points with poisoned ink (even though that suddenly seems a great idea; think Byron and the Literati including Faust, the undead master negotiator and Eliot, who plots wastelands for antagonists to fall into). No, I have this idea for Canis aka The Lone Wolf, a Nigerian senator desperate to fight corruption tooth and nail. He falls out of favour with his party for his single-mindedness and unwillingness to accept bribe. Thus the powers-that-be orchestrate an assassination attempt which fails, and Canis slumbers into a coma. In his vivid 3D dreams he becomes Canis, a leather-clad man with wolf-like abilities (not a werewolf so no howling please) of speed, strength and stealth working as a secret agent in the corridors of power, uncovering secrets and providing assistance to politicians everywhere who want to rise above the murk but cannot beat the system. These dreams will take place in locations all over the world from Austria to Australia.

The twist is that Canis meets and falls in love with Eva aka The Bridge, a being that holds the key to him waking up in real life and who doesn't tell him that his 'dreams' are actually happening in real time in the real world because she is desperate to keep him as her weapon. Canis must now learn to fight with the Pack, four other characters who can help him overthrow Eva's deceptions while assisting him with his missions. Being the Lone Wolf, of course Canis is unwilling to make the leap to team player. This accounts for the tension and conflict in the story. For the moralists, this story will aim to teach the values of working wih people and living above the natural tendency of society to malfunction. It also provides a true escape for the world-weary.

I wonder what people think about this messy idea. I was quite proud of it when I thought about it, mostly because I am completely enamoured with wolves, especially since that totally ridiculous scene in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Did anyone know that a wolf can clear 16ft in a single bound, or that it can run at twenty miles an hour for hours on end without getting tired? For those who have original ideas for comic books or superheroes, please feel free to append your thoughts. Otherwise I implore you to give feedback on my idea for this superhero. Too much, too little? Email me if you want a full synopsis.

So, Who are your favourite superheroes then?

Leading Ladies #1- Tilda Swinton and that, well just that...

Recently, I've found myself fielding questions from friends who wonder or are sometimes even alarmed at some of my choices of favourite actresses. Bulge-eyed amazement giving way to a shake of the head and a peripheral glance of worry is not an unusual reaction. I do not mind. In a pretentious way, I like having a quirky taste in actresses which does not conform to the word-on-the-street trend. For instance, I do not see what all the hoopla is about Megan Fox. I barely noticed her in the first Transformers instalment, even though I did find her more attractive for being less vampish; in the second Transformers her sexiness was a belaboured as the boring movie itself.

I'll be the first to acknowledge the strangeness of some of my choices seeing as they are too old to fall into the category of bootylicious bombshells headlined by your Scarlett Johanssons and those Gossip Girls. I'll also admit that being turned on automatically by red hair has that 'serial killer' ring to it. However, my more unusual screen loves are easy to explain. This is why I am kickstarting this brand new weekly comment on some of the women who make my cinema experience so much the sweeter. I present to you Leading Lady numero uno: 49 year-old Tilda Swinton, the crop-haired, gender-bending Cambridge graduate with a flair for the bizarre.

I assume she was born Matilda Swinton. Perhaps she wasn't and her parents were fully aware that not even they, flush with the powers of circumscription afforded any parent over their child, could straitjacket this fiery-headed woman into the type of, what may I call it- sweet simplicity that that name suggests. Even if they didn't know beforehand, they would have cottoned on when she burst out on Guy Fawkes Day no less. Bonfire Night. She is now noted for her iconic portrayal of the White Witch in the Chronicles of Narnia and her Oscar-winning turn in Michael Clayton- both mainstream characters- but it is her working partnership with the gay experimentalist director Derek Jarman and her willingness to play men (Mozart, Orlando) that provided her with her reputation as a left field performer willing to take on daring roles without ever compromising her true identity be it as a thesp or in her personal life.

Maybe it was news that she keeps a lover at the same time as (and to the full knowledge of) the father of her twin children, a bit in the Michael Gambon mould, that pricked my antenna and tuned them fully into her mystery. Nontheless, I have admired her austerity and frozen wit since I saw her play a rogue angel Gabriel with stumps for wings in the playful blockbuster Constantine opposite another strange choice of favourite, Keanu Reeves. And snarling roles as entirely unseductive affairees in Burn After Reading and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button only served to enhance her appeal to me. I love a woman who exudes sexy without having to try. She has those suffer-no-fools eyes and that regal gait, that beanpole body and nuanced fashion sense (to be kind), and altogether that combination prods at my nerve-endings with frissons of excitement. Of the kind that delights in being far away from the bandwagon.

Tilda Swinton appears in an adaptation of the critically acclaimed novel We Need To Talk About Kevin  (in pre- production). Until then, catch her in The Limits Of Control by Jim Jarmusch alongside Bill Murray, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal and the screen force that is Isaach De Bankole (see Casino Royale).

TRIVIA: Swinton garnered acclaim for her 1995 art installation 'The Maybe'. She has sat on the juries of both the Venice and Sundance Film Festivals.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: Cate Blanchett and that voice

Monday, November 9

The Most Electrifying Rivalry In Entertainment

DDT. Suplex. Sharpshooter. If like me, you spent a vast portion of your childhood camped out in front of the TV, chances are that you would have, at some point caught some of the advanced physical stunts on display in the twenty-by-twenty foot ring that served as the platform for the launch of the wrestling careers of several World Wrestling Federation (WWF) 'Superstars' in the Nineties and early noughties. Even if you didn't memorise the technical names for the moves llike I did, it would not have been difficult to get sucked into the captivating entertainment on show- the leaping top-rope moves, the gravity-defying drop kicks, and the downright disrespectful backhand slaps sometimes delivered with remarkable disdain across the straining pectorals of an unfortunate opponent. WWF (now World Wrestling Entertainment) is as much a mega-business now as it was then, but somehow though, some of its shine seems to have faded away into a blur of nostalgia looping through memory like a highlight reel.

Fortunately, the highlights were big enough to still inspire awe now in the twilight of my boyishness, enough to help massage over the growing dullness of adulthood. It helps those who had the benefit of a couple of hours of suspended logic to gloss over such formidable episodes like recession, death and taxes- at least for a moment or two. Wrestling's puppet masters are adept at tapping into the primordial human desire for carnage that dates back to the Roman Empire when Gladiators strutted to chants of praise from countless thousands in the iconic Collosseum. They simply scripted the fights which we later discovered were choreographed, to collective childhood disappointment.

In retrospect, was there really any other way to generate some of the most memorable sporting moments ever committed to celluloid? Picture this, the sound of glass smashing followed by bloodcurdling rock music to announce the entrance of a man known simply as The Toughest S.O.B. in the WWF aka Stone Cold Steve Austin. Then remember the spinetingling cry of a consummate braggadocio: 'If you smellllllll...what The Rock is cooking' and the emergence of the Great One with the permanently cocked eyebrow who might as well be sweating sunlight for all the mass hysteria in whatever auditorium he graced. Those two men, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, giants on the WWF stage, created what can only be termed The Most Electrifying Rivalry In Sports Entertainment.

Forget El Clasico, forget Lakers- Celtics, forget Borg- McEnroe, for sheer drama nothing else in sports has come close to the consistent spell-binding cinema served up by those two week in week out. To start with, neither man could possibly stand the other. On paper, they were chalk and cheese. The Texas Rattlesnake Steve Austin was a bald-headed redneck everyman anti-hero who would have come on in shirtsleeves if it wasn't impractical. The Rock, au contraire, was a trashtalking self- advertisement with more aliases than Jay-Z. He showed up on stage in Miami shirts and shades and sported an Elvis quiff complete with sideburns. Steve Austin started out from scratch and was nearly dropped from the franchise for being 'un-marketable' (read, 'too real, no acting'). The Rock had the spotlight on him from the outset as the third in a three-generation line of Wrestling Idols- his dad and grandfather were also wrestlers. The writers behind the scenes worked their story perfectly, bringing the two giants together in clashes that would help define a generation of teenagers.

By the time the two men became the biggest tickets in the WWF, I was hooked. Looking back at clips of their exploits now, I am amazed at the things they said and did. Both men ended up as fundamentally the same. But this happens with the most intense of rivalries (Conservative- Labour, check; Good- Evil, check). They both had swagger by the gallon (for a long time I tried to imitate Stone Cold's entry walk, head bobbing left-right like a pendulum, ground cowering from his boots). In fact, they were dirty lodmouths that splattered headlines across every screening of Wrestlemania, each determined to provide unrelenting entertainment to the placard-wavers in the bleachers. Steve Austin had the nerve to utter the infamous mantra 'Austin 3:16 says I WHUPPED YOUR ASS!' to the supposedly born-again Jake the Snake in open mockery of his persistent reference to John 3:16 in the Bible. I'm sure we all know what that verse really says. The Rock was the more magnetic speaker. He pasted opponents with catchphrases like 'Know Your Role- And SHUT YOUR MOUTH!' and muttered mumbo- jumbo any chance he got. The madding crowd lapped it up, no question, when we should have been asking italics'What in the blue hell is a "Roo-Dee-Poo Candy Ass"?'. While Stone Cold spent all his time flipping the bird as though his middle finger were loaded on a spring, The Rock bounded around with a microphone permanently tuned in the third person and inventing ridiculous ideas that referenced his status as The People's Champion. Thus, the People's Elbow and The People's Eyebrow were born.

I do not think any one piece of writing can adequately fete these two men. It is difficult, nay impossible to pay full tribute to the glorious years of Stone Cold Stunnas and Rockbottoms. It is only when you take a trip down memory lane and unlock the doors to the numerous highlights they provided as a feuding duo that you begin to realise their impact. I was sixteen before I stopped believing I could be The Rock. Those were the days when I would lie in wait for my school mates and take them by surprise, swinging one arm under an opposing shoulder. Then I would lift my flailing victim up and bring them crashing down to concrete in one sweet copycat movement. Afterwards, I would raise an eyebrow. It is only now that I can appreciate the theatre that was WWF, especially now that the WWE has finally degenerated into a doggone farce that is too plot heavy to transcend the imagination of the willing fans who flock to stadia to be fooled on days besides April 1st.

Those days, Stone Cold and The Rock got away with so much that was un-PC it was un-believable. Austin drove a beer truck on stage. Then proceeded to hose down opponents with alcohol. He dived in opponents' faces and shouted almost-unpardonable obscenities. The Rock used sex-riddled innuendo. He described his 'rock jewels' as biggerthan the entire arena. He called himself, yes he NAMED himself The Most Electrifying Man In Sports Entertainment. Today, John Cena brushes his shoulders off hip-hop style, as if that is enough to symbolise rebellion. It is stuff like this that makes me wish I could be eleven again. Yet I am glad of my age because now I can see that Steve Austin was George W Bush before the 'misunderestimated' one figured out that all Americans want is 'the bloke they can have a beer with' to look up to. And The Rock showed many black boys that they can be hard and outspoken at the same time, and still be number one and franchise-leader; he stepped easily into the shoes of Muhammad Ali providing the quotable quotes for teenage boys thirty years on.

Just watch the clips below to grasp the legend of these two men, to reach back into recent memory and pull back the awesomeness that was WWF's Golden Age. These two went past the mildly amusing tantrums of Hulk Hogan and transited direct into the sphere of global relevance, the arrogant but talented hero with the movie star looks who made everyone want to hang like him, and the bloody-minded anarchic rebel-without-a-cause who helped every angst-filled teen hurt a little easier, whom everybody wanted to hang with. I'll say it again- The Most Electrifying Rivalry in Sports Entertainment. BEST QUOTES IT DOESN'T MATTER VS