Palatable: Shaft

Shaft (1971)
Directed by Gordon Parks
Written by Ernest Tidyman, John D.F. Black
Produced by Joel Freeman, Roger H. Lewis, David Golden, Ernest Tidyman, Stirling Silliphant
Starring Richard Roundtree, Charles Cioffi, Moses Gunn, Christopher St. John, Gwenn Mitchell
Silliphant, Lewis, et al. were wise to work the Blaxploitation trend at its inception without overproducing this infamously gritty crime drama, in which the tough, eponymous Harlem P.I. (Roundtree) is employed to locate the kidnapped daughter of an aging crime lord (Gunn) with the abetment of a black power gang's honcho (St. John) and a sympathetic police detective (Cioffi) who affords him an absurd measure of liberty. Through Parks' keen eye, sweeping pans, picturesque tracking, irruptive zooms and striking overhead establishing shots magnify venereal and investigatory montages just as well as a few cleverly concocted action sequences in squalid slums all too familiar to the masterly photojournalist. Most of the pic's appeal hinges on Roundtree, all surly sinew and sex appeal in the lead, and it's just as well: his enormous presence almost obscures that of his co-stars. Issac Hayes' celebrated, superbly arranged score is its other indispensable ingredient, still funkily appealing in its playful audacity 45 years later. Certainly the lesser of his two scripts successfully adapted to the screen in '71, Tidyman's trickishly plotted story only ages so well: his dialogue's as dated as the decor, though its antiquation's countervailed by credible delivery. For a crudely cut exploitation picture intended for consumption by a target audience of young black men, Parks' most enduring feature is not only broadly entertaining, but easily the best of its genre...and a vivid snapshot of Harlem's squalor decades anteceding its gentrification.


Palatable: Dark Horse

Dark Horse (2011)
Directed and written by Todd Solondz
Produced by Derrick Tseng, Ted Hope, Juan Basanta, Craig Shilowich, Nick Quested
Starring Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken, Donna Murphy, Justin Bartha, Zachary Booth, Aasif Mandvi
His every pronounced peculiarity disadvantages a huffy, porcine, purblind, puerile, thinning thirtysomething toy collector (Gelber) whose employment under his weary father (Walken) and camaraderie with his doting mother (Farrow) are strained by a boundless immaturity overt as total social ineptitude and an insufferable species of insolence. Smitten with an introverted depressive (Blair) with whom he shares more compassion than congeniality, this liege yet ludicrous man-child mollified by a lifetime of parental pampering rages at every adversity, blaming all save himself for his squandered opportunities. Even in dreams that confront him with distressing insights affirming his shortcomings and self-doubt, apprehensions and affections, he's too rigidly obtuse to accept his lot, or any substantial responsibility. If that line between pitch-black comedy and solemn drama that Solondz toed in previous pictures is even present here, he ignores it entirely, and nowhere are his mingled hilarity and pathos so affecting as in prolonged static shots and zooms. As an exemplar of his stunted generation, Gelber's hilariously, almost brilliantly embarrassing in the lead, his delivery of both blustering ebullience and the deathly pessimism lurking beneath as gracelessly credible as amusing. Aging, bewigged Walken and Farrow are weirdly Ashkenized with dark contacts, and almost as resounding in their staid gloom as Blair, now a polished veteran of miserable characterization. Abounding with obnoxiously shopworn and superficial pop songs mirroring its subject's temperament, this monition from Solondz to Gen-X and millennial audiences regarding the unique strains of inanity and dysfunction proceeding from prosperity and indiscipline may prove more relevant -- and its protagonist less atypical -- with every passing decade.


Palatable: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)
Directed and written by Mamoru Oshii
Produced by Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, Toshio Suzuki, Maki Terashima-Furuta
Starring Akio Otsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Yutaka Nakano, Atsuko Tanaka
With Major Kusanagi's evolutionary evanescence a few years behind them, her sometime governmental intelligence department investigates a series of murders committed by prototypal domestic androids -- who wipe their own brains and self-destruct after executing their assigned keepers -- when police officers and a politician fall victim to these inexplicable recurrences. Wizened section chief Aramaki (Oki) pairs strapping cyborg Bato (Otsuka) with whilom police detective Togusa (Yamadera) to probe the robots' manufacturer and a possible connection with a Yakuza subdivision, leading them from Niihama's seediest districts to a crumbling Chinese urban stretch of data integration firms. Fans familiar with Oshii's broody, solemnly philosophic cinematic adaptation of Shirow's playful manga know what to expect from its sequel, though its synthesis of action and introspection are hardly as balanced or effective as that of the prior picture. Bato's waned morose during the lengthy absence of his vanished superior, and his persiflage with colleagues is consequently as sardonic as his manner's withdrawn -- a plausible but terribly unengaging development for this series' most waggish character. In his interpretation of themes and scenarios derived from the first manga series' sixth and tenth issues, Oshii's strayed too far from Shirow's jocularity and technical preoccupations to focus on matters ontological. Section 9's personnel and a few of their suspects indifferently reference and quote Milton and Confucius, Saito and Weber, Shelley and Daiyuu, Buddha and Plato...but even the most acute apercus filtered through secondhand philosophy can't compensate for Oshii's recent inability to script compelling or realistic dialogue; exposition and expatiation are too often substituted for conversation rather than integrated as marrow therein. Nowhere is such claptrap so insufferably pretentious as when uttered by a smugly effete forensic analyst who propounds the transhumanist twaddle of the supremely pontifical feminist sociologist Donna Haraway while interviewed by the protagonal agents. Still, Oshii's Gordian plotting and associated visual devices are delightfully clever, and many of his best hallmarks are present: striking photic effects, detailed backgrounds, and those lovable basset hounds. Animation beautifully rendered via cel and CG mesh at least so well here as in the first flick, but shots exclusively composed of computer graphics clash slightly less in collocation than those of the Golgo 13 feature from 1983, and while their depiction of vehicular and architectural subjects shine, natural phenomena are far less adequately imaged. Kenji Kawai's music includes some fine ambience, but none of it's as haunting as any single track from the first GitS score, and his main theme is but a wan, wearisome reprise of that from the preceding suite. For all its superbly realized violence and insight, Oshii's drably sober conception of Shirow's series seems too often a vehicle to explore his own idees fixes pertaining to the correlative and emblematic nexus of organisms and artifices, death and disposability, societies and networks -- and for all these characters' ruminations regarding the nature of existence, too little humanity's in evidence before the third act.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Ghost in the Shell.