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Head of State (2003)

When the gangsta-rap group N.W.A. put themselves in the White House in one of their videos, it was a surrealistic, confrontational statement. Fourteen years later, the image of the hip-hop politician is still nonexistent outside the media's fantasy world.

Chris Rock's take on the concept his directorial debut Head of State is not a good film, but it's interesting to see how one of America's best comedians becomes very unfunny on the big screen. Just as Charlie Chaplin dulled when he abandoned sheer physicality, Rock's combativeness has been softened, negating his biting racial messages.

Here, he cops neither the thug-persona of hardcore rappers who would never get elected anyway, nor the Vanilla Ice act of Warren Beatty in Bulworth. Rock is, instead, the boyish good guy, a Mr. Smith going to Washington used by the Democratic Party to garner the favor of the growing minority population. He tells it like it is, works his followers into a churchy frenzy, and uses profanity to show that he's real.

Head of State coughs up cliches; the villain is a Republican nationalist, journalists are conservative enemies, and black women are gold-diggers. The redundant soundtrack consists mainly of Nelly and Jay-Z, which would be a jab at radio's boring, corporate-controlled playlists if it didn't represent Rock's shallow hip-hop appreciation and short-term memory for popular music. Rap infiltrates a gathering of wealthy whites in a nod to Eve's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" video.

Neither Rock nor his opponent make valid presidential candidates, and we receive no indication that our hero would have the ability to back up his simplistic populism. There has yet to be a legitimate hip-hop president in the movies, so who knows how long we'll have to wait for one in real life.

There was a time not too long ago when the credit "Directed by Chris Rock" would have been unthinkable on a mainstream box-office smash; in the past, black directors have done blaxploitation or independents. Rock is part of an emerging group of young minorities at the helm of Hollywood movies shying away from the atmospheric art of Spike Lee and the stomping sermons of John Singleton. The ghetto is now addressed with the light touch new bourgeois filmmakers like Rick Famuyiwa and Gary Hardwick have popularized. Comically and politically worthless, Head of State is at least indicative of the new aesthetic; the dumbing-down of activism has been the cost of acceptance.

By Andrew Chan [APRIL 6, 2003; ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER]
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The Nines (2007)

The Nines (2007) Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis, Melissa McCarthy, Elle Fanning Director: John August The Nines 2007 John August, who has written such diverse films as GO, BIG FISH, CORPSE BRIDE, and CHARLIE'S ANGELS, makes his directorial debut with THE NINES, a complex, thought-provoking work divided into three sections and featuring the same actors playing different roles, with the number nine always lurking in the background. In "The Prisoner," Ryan Reynolds plays Gary, a TV star who has been placed under house arrest after going crazy because his girlfriend dumped him. He is watched closely by Margaret (Melissa McCarthy, from THE GILMORE GIRLS), a publicist who seems to know more than she is letting on, and by neighbor Sarah (Hope Davis), who is instantly attracted to him. In "Reality Television," Reynolds is a director named Gavin who is shooting a TV pilot starring McCarthy (playing a version of herself), but he's getting mixed signals from studio executive Susan (Davis), all while being filmed for a television reality program. And in "Knowing," Reynolds is Gabriel, the character in the TV pilot that Gavin was shooting, with McCarthy playing his wife, Mary, and Davis as a mysterious stranger deciding whether she should help the family, whose car has broken down on a deserted mountain. Certain minute elements repeat in each part, giving clues as to what it's all really about as fantasy and reality intertwine. David Denman (THE OFFICE) and Elle Fanning also appear in each section, while Dahlia Salem (ER) and Ben Falcone (McCarthy's real-life husband) play themselves within fictional worlds. THE NINES is a fascinating exploration of art and character that, of course, runs 99 minutes.