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DID YOU READ

Shelf Life: “Malcolm X”

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The Sundance Film Festival is a bonanza for cinephiles because it offers them a unique and early opportunity to experience movies yet to be released and filmmakers yet to be discovered. But just as much, it’s an opportunity for film fans to reconnect with the artists who inspired them to love the medium in the first place, even as those artists push their work into new, unforaged or at least hopefully more deeply refined territory. And in 2012, no known filmmaker made a deeper impression at Sundance than Spike Lee, whose “Red Hook Summer” polarized audiences even as it demonstrated the director’s return to the sort of material that first helped establish him as a great cinematic voice.

Coincidentally, Lee’s film “Malcolm X” was released on Blu-ray this week, and Warner Home Video did an excellent job of putting together a release that at the very least is worthy of the film’s enormous ambition. But given the fact that it came out near the peak of Lee’s earliest success, and it was released some 20 years ago, when films like this could be incendiary and provocative and yet conventionally satisfying all at once, does “Malcolm X” hold up as a great work of art? Not having seen it in many years, we weren’t sure, but that’s why “Shelf Life” was created – to see how well a film’s artistic bona fides stand up years after its initial release.


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The Facts

Released on November 18, 1992, “Malcolm X” was always seen to some extent as a prestige picture by Warner Brothers, so even though it didn’t hugely outgross its budget (it cost $33 million and made $48), it was a modest financial success. Despite the controversy over its conception – including Lee’s condemnation of the film’s first choice of director, Norman Jewison, and the generally mixed feeling many moviegoers had over supposedly glorifying such a divisive historical figure – the film went on to receive significant praise from the critical community, garnering a 91 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes.

At the Academy Awards, star Denzel Washington received a nomination for Best Actor but lost to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman. The film was also nominated for Best Costume Design. Washington won the Silver Bear Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival. The Chicago Film Critics Society gave the film Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director awards, and nominated Al Freeman Jr. for Best Supporting Actor.


What Still Works

First, on a technical level, the film is beautifully constructed – there’s no fat on its three-plus hour running time, and it truly feels like it captures the most important moments in X’s life. (And more importantly, the transformation the former Malcolm Little makes into El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz is natural and unforced, but pointed.) Lee’s script captures the mindset of the former hoodlum as he transforms into the figurehead of the Nation of Islam, and then strikes out on his own as a Muslim who refuses to be bound by blind faith but must rely on logic and common sense just as much. And Ernest Dickerson’s cinematography captures some of the most glorious images ever put on screen; the director of photography has an approach that’s not unlike, say, Robert Richardson’s, where the fills the screen with color and light, and isn’t afraid to create a stylized world while somehow managing to make it still believable.

Washington’s performance as Malcolm X is one of the great in cinema history, and it’s a genuine tragedy that Al Pacino won an Oscar over him for his mugging, grandiose performance in Scent of a Woman over this complex, nuanced and utterly affecting turn. The actor’s febrile energy sizzles during the early scenes in which Malcolm fearlessly throws himself into a life of wasteful self-indulgence, and later, criminal misdeeds, and later his palpable intelligence balances out that ferocity that feels as much like a maturation of Washington himself as the character. As Elijah Muhammed, Al Freeman Jr. inspires an immediate kind of awe, and a reverence that both Washington and the audience respond to, creating a character whom we can understand why Malcolm committed himself so fully – and later, felt so powerfully disillusioned because of.

Thematically, the film should resonate with any person of any color, as its fundamental story is an American archetype – the transformation of a person with nothing into a person of great character and accomplishment. That Lee is able to successfully communicate that without X’s rhetoric overwhelming it is a testament to his virtuosity as a filmmaker. At the same time, there’s a much more fascinating and resonant idea percolating beneath the surface of the story, and that’s of a person who discovers faith and then finds that faith shaken. There’s something beautiful and tragic and truly moving about Malcolm’s commitment to the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammed, because he inevitably severs ties and exacerbates the rift between himself and them once they excommunicate him.

But there’s also something powerful and uplifting about the rediscovery of Malcolm’s intellectual awareness, his inability to simply accept on blind belief the truth and integrity of what he (and especially Muhammed) is doing. His ultimate rediscovery of his own self through his submission to the Islamic faith is a brilliant parable for any person who believes in a higher power.


What Doesn’t Work

Honestly, nothing. I’ve seen the film many, many times since its original release, and going back, there’s nothing in it that should be removed or redone or that’s problematic in any significant or even noticeable way.


The Verdict

There are many fans of Spike Lee (and detractors as well) who believe that “Do The Right Thing” is his best film, his masterpiece, and they’re right in that it contains the most rage, the most focused frustration turned into character and story. But “Malcolm X” shows the filmmaker not just at a point of advanced refinement, remarkable calm even in the face of such provocative subject matter, but at a place where he was most and best able to create stories that were very unique and yet very accessible to audiences. It certainly helped that at that time, directors like Oliver Stone were pushing buttons and mounting rhetorical cinematic arguments about a wide variety of different subjects. But Lee at that time was an equal filmmaker to Stone or almost any of his contemporaries, and “Malcolm X” is a masterpiece that deserves far more recognition than it ever received.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.