Wilson (2017)


A dysfunctional family portrait.

(2017) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, James Saito, Bill McCallum, Alec George, Nate Mooney, Paul Cram, Tom Proctor, Katie Rose Law, Roxy Wood, Bruce Bohne, Greta Oglesby, Rachel Weber, Toussaint Morrison, Tonita Castro. Directed by Craig Johnson

 

We all know someone like him; a person with the social skills of a charging bull. Someone who generates awkward silences like our president generates Tweets. You know, that person who stops every conversation dead in their tracks with pronouncements that defy reason or rudeness that defies civility.

Wilson (Harrelson) is that guy. He lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his dog that he adores but who pisses him off regularly. His only friend is moving about as far away as he can get and taking his shrewish wife with him. Wilson’s dad passes away from cancer soon afterward. With all this going on, Wilson decides he needs to reconnect with the world.

Doing that, he decides, means reconnecting with his ex-wife Pippi (Dern). She’s no saint either, owning what could charitably be charitably described as a checkered past including prostitution and drug abuse. When Wilson finds her, she’s trying to get her life back together working as a waitress. But that’s not all.

When Pippi originally left, she’d told Wilson that she’d gotten an abortion – but psych! It turns out that she’d put the baby up for adoption instead. Claire (Amara) has been raised by wealthy parents but has plenty of issues. Wilson is determined to reach out to the child he never knew he had and establish a connection, dragging a reluctant Pippi along in the process. It could be a good thing but as Wilson is wont to do, he messes things up instead.

This is based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay) and it plays in a lot of ways like a Clowes book; simply drawn and not terribly sketched out. However, I have to admit I went in with low expectations based on a trailer that felt like something I’d seen plenty of times before. In all honesty I was pleasantly surprised; I thought this was going to be one of those social experiments to find out how unlikable they can make the main character and still get some critical acclaim.

Frankly, the critical response has been surprisingly low on this one; the general consensus seems to be that the film is predictable and in some ways it is – Wilson’s journey is pretty much by-the-numbers and yet I left the theater feeling a bit of catharsis. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

It is definitely a movie that builds. Early on my low expectations were essentially being me and I remember leaning over and whispering to Da Queen “Oh, now I remember why Woody Harrelson is mostly playing support roles these days.” Well, more fool me – as the film progressed, Harrelson took over and while he was still playing a pretty much unlikable no-filter kind of guy, I felt myself beginning to root for Wilson. Hey, a guy that much into dogs can’t be all bad, right? In any case, I was reminded why Woody Harrelson has a filmography that a whole lot of actors in this town would envy. Okay, in Hollywood. EVERY actor in Orlando would envy Woody Harrelson’s filmography.

Yeah, there are places that the film gets a bit sentimental and yes, when Wilson hits rock bottom it’s hard not to get emotional. One thing though that differentiates this from other films of this ilk is that it has a superior cast. Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale (who’s essentially only in one scene) and Cheryl Hines are top actresses who take a back seat to nobody in terms of consistent performances. They add depth to the film and give Harrelson plenty of places to play off of – Dern in particular makes an excellent foil for Harrison. The young Isabella Amara does some fine work here as well; her character is certainly complicated and troubled but is basically a decent girl who hasn’t gotten a ton of love in her life.

The ending is a little schmaltzy but all in all, I did end up liking Wilson more than I expected to. I’m not a big Clowes fan by any stretch of the imagination so that’s a bit of an accomplishment but I’m now very interested in picking up a couple of the man’s graphic novels and giving them another chance. Sometimes, changing your perspective is a right place at the right time kind of thing.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of film that grows on you. Wilson does in fact grow throughout the film which is a bit of a shocker.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too many neuroses on display for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a smidgeon of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The jail scenes were filmed at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minnesota which is a working prison.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Barry

The Salesman (Forushande)


Taraneh Alidoosti peers into a room that no longer feels safe to her.

(2016) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, Mina Sadati, Mojtaba Prizadeh, Sam Valipour, Emad Emami, Mehdi Koushki, Maral Bani Adam, Shirin Aghakashi, Ehteram Boroumand, Sahra Asadollahe. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

They say life imitates art, although it is more accurate to say that art imitates life far more often. On the rare occasion when the reverse is true it can be much more devastating than you might think.

Emad Etesami (S. Hosseini) is a teacher of Western literature in an Iranian high school (or its equivalent). Most of his students are practical jokers and a bit on the unruly side. His job is just that – a job. His passion is the stage and his drama club is producing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with Emad in the lead role of Willie Loman and Emad’s wife Rana (Alidoosti) as Linda Loman, Willie’s wife.

When their apartment complex becomes uninhabitable due to structure damage, Babak (Karimi), one of their cast members, offers an apartment in a complex that he owns. He’s a bit reticent to talk about the previous tenant, who left suddenly, other than to say “she had too many visitors.” What that cryptic remark meant soon became apparent when they discover that the woman in question had left some possessions she refused to pick up…and that she might have been entertaining men in the oldest profession sense of the word.

But that thought takes a bad turn when one night while Rana is alone and in the shower she buzzes in someone she assumes is her husband. Instead, it is someone who leaves her with a concussion and several bruises. Rana denies she was sexually assaulted but she is definitely reacting as if she was. She becomes paranoid, frightened. She becomes less able to leave the apartment even after she is cleared medically to do so. The relationship between Rana and Emad becomes strained. He becomes obsessed with finding out who committed the assault on his wife. He feels guilty for not having protected her. That obsession will lead to a confrontation that will test his basic decency and moral center. In other words, the Tennessee Miller play is being enacted in his life.

This is the most recent (as of this writing) winner for the Foreign Language Film Oscar and the second such award that Farhadi has won (the first was for A Separation). It’s fair to say that he is one of the best film directors in the world at the moment. Like some of his previous films, he takes an ordinary couple and throws something extraordinary into their lives.

It is never fully disclosed whether or not Rana suffered a sexual assault; whatever happened takes place off-screen and we’re left to wonder, as Emad does, whether or not she was raped. Certainly we are led in that direction through most of the film. Emad changes; he becomes obsessed, enraged and occasionally lashes out at Rana. Rana, for her part, becomes paranoid and withdrawn. While our sympathies lie with Emad about midway through the movie (Rana takes out a lot of her anger on him) we watch as our sympathies slowly change sides until Rana becomes the more rational of the two.

We see how bureaucrats in Iran regulate the arts, calling for slight changes in the Miller script that portray the West as decadent and corrupt. We also see how people are careful about expressing what they want to as there are always secret police around. It is the casual fear and paranoia that are part of the daily lives of Iranians that was the most poignant takeaway for me from this film.

Both Alidoosti and Hosseini are big stars in Iran. They are unlikely to ever cross over to American stardom; the current political climate forbids that. They give performances that while not necessarily Oscar-worthy are certainly worth including in that conversation. Alidoosti strikes me as the kind of actress who could easily be headlining major franchise films in a perfect world. This world is not perfect; it was never perfect and Arthur Miller knew that. The imperfect world is what crushed Willie Loman in the first place. Both Rana and Emad are setting themselves up to be crushed by that same world; whether they survive or not is immaterial. What does succeed is that not only do we see the cultural similarities between Iran and the West but we inadvertently become closer to the Iranian people by doing so.

REASONS TO GO: The performances of Alidoosti and Hosseini are strong. There’s some insight here into the repressive regime in Iran. The effect of the assault on all involved is realistically depicted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film moves at something of a slow pace.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a brief bloody image and adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farhadi chose not to travel to Hollywood to participate in the 2017 Academy Awards due to the travel ban that was enacted by the United States against seven Muslim nations including Iran. When the film won, Anousheh Ansari read a statement by the director explaining his absence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Irreversible
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Wilson

Spectral


You see dead people.

(2016) Sci-Fi Horror (Netflix/Legendary) James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, Bruce Greenwood, Max Martini, Cory Hardrict, Clayne Crawford, Gonzalo Menendez, Ursula Parker, Aaron Serban, Stephen Root, Royce Pierreson, Jimmy Akingbola, Philip Bulcock, Ryan Robbins, Dylan Smith, Louis Ozawa Changchien, James D. Dever, Mark O’Neal, Michael Bodie, Declan Hannigan  Directed by Nic Mathieu

 

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by the minds of mortal men. Sometimes the minds of mortal men think up some amazing things. Some of those things are way too dangerous and should be left alone.

A group of elite U.S. soldiers are in the country of Moldova whose government has collapsed. They are attacked by something strange; glowing vaguely human beings that might be ghosts who kill with a single touch. The commander of the U.S. force (Greenwood) calls in DARPA scientist Mark Clyne (Dale) who developed goggles that allow men to see the invisible to the naked eye spectral beings.

He is accompanied by Fran Madison (Mortimer), a CIA analyst who believes that the deaths are the result of some super-weapon that the insurgents have developed. Using the goggles that Dr. Clyne built, the soldiers determine that the specters can’t be harmed with small arms fire. Clyne modifies searchlights so that they can see the specters more easily. They also find out that the creatures, which can move through solid walls, can’t go through iron. They modify their explosive devices so that they fire iron filings at the things.

The soldiers find a laboratory and discover to their shock that these specters were the results of weapons experiments in which human beings were duplicated with advanced 3D printers and are kept alive by the brains of the originals. However, control was lost of the experiment and now the city is full of these specters and it won’t take long before they overrun everything.

This was originally developed at Universal as part of their deal with Legendary who had just separated from their long-time distributors at Warner Brothers. However, when push came to shove the studio declined to release the film and Netflix eventually snapped it up. So Netflix essentially got a ready-made (relatively) big budget genre film.

Dale has been on the ragged edge of leading man duties for awhile and this should have been a career boost but sadly it likely won’t be now. That’s a shame; he’s a fine actor and while I don’t think this particular role really benefits him well, he at least does a decent enough job with an underwritten role that is largely a video game character.

In fact the whole movie reminded me of a video game. Sort of like Call of Duty meets Aliens with a dash of Ghostbusters thrown in only with the humor excised. That might work for some but I think it’s a serious miscalculation. People who like videogames want to have some control rather than passively watch someone else’s vision. The filmmakers would have been better served to make this less of a videogame cinematic.

The special effects aren’t half bad in some places and while the plot tends to meander a little bit, it doesn’t do so enough to make the film incomprehensible. I can see why Universal hesitated about releasing this wide; it seems to appeal to a niche audience and given that most videogame adaptations have been epic failures both critically and at the box office, I’m not sure that a videogame adaptation of a game that doesn’t exist would do any better. It seems tailor-made for Netflix and while I thought it was a bit disappointing, it is entertaining enough and interesting enough to be worth a look.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the special effects are nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little bit convoluted.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense sci-fi action sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Badge Dale and Max Martini also played military roles in 13 Hours.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Objective
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Salesman

Dig Two Graves


Samantha Isler and the tunnel of terror.

(2014) Thriller (Area23a) Ted Levine, Samantha Isler, Danny Goldring, Troy Ruptash, Rachael Drummond, Dean Evans, Bradley Grant Smith, Gabriel Cain, Ryan Kitley, Audrey Francis, Mark Lancaster, Mikush Lieshdedaj, Bert Matias, Gregorio Parker, Ben Schneider, Ann Sonneville, Sauda Namir, Tom Hertenstein, Kara Zediker. Directed by Hunter Adams

 

Guilt when coupled with grief can make a very potent emotional stew. It can drive us to do things we would never ordinarily consider doing, to completely rewrite our moral codes. It takes a very strong will to grapple with these emotions at once and come out on top.

Jake Mather (Isler) however has the disadvantage of being a pre-teen. She and her brother Sean (Schneider) were standing on a cliff above a quarry which is now a lake. He urged her to jump. She didn’t want to. He offered to hold her hand. She said yes but at the last minute let go. Over the side he went and into the water, never to resurface. In fact, his body was never recovered.

She is soon approached by a trio of gypsy moonshiners who have the devil’s own offer for her; she can get her brother back if only she can get someone to take his place. They even have a specific person in mind – Willie Proctor (Cain) who has a huge crush on her. As it turns out their grandfathers have a connection to the gypsies going back to 1947, thirty years earlier. That connection has dark connotations for the two children who weren’t even born when the events took place.

Jake’s grandfather (Levine), the town sheriff, has been holding the guilt of those events in and as he investigates the mysterious gypsies and their designs on Jake, memories come flooding back, unpleasant ones. Keeping Jake alive will be hard enough; keeping her soul pure will be something else entirely.

Although this was filmed in Southern Illinois, there is more of a West Virginia vibe to it from my point of view. The movie seems to take its cues from Southern Gothic authors like Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. There is palpable menace but nothing so overt or concrete that we can identify exactly what it is. That makes the movie doubly scary. Adams chooses to take things slowly rather than racing towards the finish line; it’s a calculated risk but it serves the overall tone well.

Ted Levine is a fine character actor who is best known as the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs and the beleaguered San Francisco police captain in Monk. He goes subtle here, playing the haunted Sheriff Waterhouse mostly through the eyes and the cheroots he smokes. The sheriff loves his granddaughter fiercely and feels the pain of her grief keenly but he never talks down to her. I never thought I’d say this, but Ted Levine is the kind of grandfather I’d want to have. Most of the rest of the cast is decent although special mention must be given for Samantha Isler, who a couple years after this was filmed made Captain Fantastic. Her performance has depth far beyond that of most young actors.

The one place the movie goes wrong is the final act. It just seems to lose steam and never really regains it. There are some good moments that involve the Sheriff and his predecessor and we finally find out what the connection between the gypsies, Willie Proctor and Jake Mather is but I think a little bit too much is given away during the flashback sequences and as a result it comes as something of an anticlimax. I would have liked a bit more dramatic tension in the ending but at this point the film’s slower pace and languid tone work against it.

The rural setting is inherently creepy and dare I say haunted; thankfully, the horror elements are kept subtle and not too far-fetched. Adams has a very sure hand and the pacing is wonderfully slow. I’m absolutely flabbergasted this sat on the shelf so long but to be honest, this isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. In these days of short attention spans and easily distracted youth, slow rolling thrillers simply aren’t going to get the audiences that quick cutting big budget CGI-laden franchise films are going to. And that’s okay; but there is an audience for movies like this and hopefully Dig Two Graves will find it.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a wonderful Southern Gothic feel to it.
REASONS TO STAY: It runs out of steam in the final act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a few disturbing images, some nudity and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is just now getting a limited release, it actually debuted at the 2014 New Orleans Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jessabelle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Spectral

The LEGO Batman Movie


The Batmobile is getting a little bit crowded.

(2017) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Ralph Fiennes, Rosario Dawson, Siri, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate, Conan O’Brien, Doug Benson, Jason Mantzoukas, Billy Dee Williams, Zoë Kravitz, Kate Micucci, Riki Lindhome, Eddie Izzard, Seth Green, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Jemaine Clement, Hector Elizondo, Chris Hardwick, Ellie Kemper. Directed by Chris McKay

 

After the breakout success of The LEGO Movie in 2014, it became clear that one of the reasons for that success was Will Arnett’s delightful portrayal of Batman. Completely clueless and a bit of a jerk, it became clear that he deserved his own movie.

The movie he got is a face off between Batman (Arnett) and the Joker (Galifianakis) but not in the traditional sense. Jim Gordon (Elizondo) is retiring as police chief and his daughter Barbara (Dawson) is taking over but the pragmatic Barbara has some questions. If Batman is such a great crime fighter, why is Gotham so overridden with crime?

For Batman’s part, he leads a lonely existence, dining alone at Wayne Manor while watching Jerry Maguire and laughing in all the wrong places. His faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Fiennes) reminds Batman/Bruce Wayne that he has a responsibility – for one thing, to raise the orphan Dick Grayson (Cera) that he had adopted. Batman, for his part, didn’t realize he’d adopted the boy, thinking it was a joke. Grayson discovers Bruce Wayne’s secret and takes on the costumed vigilante identity as Robin, much to Batman’s annoyance.

But Joker has a plan; to release all of the monsters from the Phantom Zone and overrun Gotham. What he really wants though is for Batman to admit that the Joker is his arch-nemesis which the Caped Crusader just won’t do. But he can’t take on all these villains at once. He’s going to have to put aside his ego and admit that he needs help.

The movie is very family-friendly; kids will love it and adults won’t mind it either. While the “family is important” message will resonate with adults, kids might find it a bit saccharine; kids tend to prefer anarchy and chaos when left to their own devices. The nerd brigade will like the infusion of various DC superheroes as well as monsters and villains from across the pop culture spectrum (curiously there are no Marvel superheroes or villains, at least none I can remember). Adults will appreciate the rapid fire jokes that keep the movie jumping, not unlike a ZAZ film from the 70s. However, like most movies that throw a lot of jokes into the mix, not all of them work. A lot of them hit the mark though, like the whole lobster thermador thing. While the satire of the comic book genre is spot on, McKay and his cadre of five comedy writers also skewer movie conventions with Arnett’s portentous voiceover as the movie opens “Black screen. All important movies start with a black screen.” And he continues, hilariously, as the various production company logos come on.

The animation is simple but effective and makes clever use of the LEGO bricks that make up the world. McKay, a veteran of Robot Chicken, knows how to keep the action moving and there are some pretty spiffy action sequences. It does fall apart in the final act when there are way too many monsters and it becomes hard to follow. The palate is a bit darker than The LEGO Movie but it is still bright enough to keep the smaller kids delighted.

I don’t think this is as successful as The LEGO Movie but that may well be because we were so caught off guard by that movie. The bar was a bit higher for this one and if it didn’t quite hit it, it came damn close.

REASONS TO GO: Equally fun for children and adults alike. A fresh view of Batman and at comic book superheroes in general.
REASONS TO STAY: The humor can be hit and miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some animated action and a few rude jokes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fiennes is the third Oscar-nominated actor to play Alfred Pennyworth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deadpool
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dig Two Graves

A Dog’s Purpose


Dennis Quaid goes nose-to-nose with one of the canine stars in the film.

(2017) Family (Universal) Josh Gad (voice), Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, KJ Apa, Bryce Ghelsar, Juliet Rylance, Luke Kirby, Gabrielle Rose, Michael Bofshever, Britt Robertson, Logan Miller, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Pooch Hall, John Ortiz, Nicole LaPlaca, Primo Allon, Peter Kelamis, Caroline Cave, Jane McGregor, Robert Mann, Ron Vewymeren, David J. Lyle, Kelly-Ruth Mercier. Directed by Lasse Hallström

 

Let’s get one thing straight; I am a dog person. Seriously, Da Queen often shakes her head at the extent of my love for the canine species. I have trouble watching cruelty perpetrated to dogs on film (even in animations) and quite frankly all it takes is my dogs whimpering just the right way and I’m putty in their paws. In other words, I’m pretty much the target audience for this film so keep that in mind when reading the review.

The essential concept is that we look at the lives of a variety of dogs, all voiced by Gad, who have been reincarnated one life from the other complete with the memories of previous lives. Bailey belongs to a young boy (Ghelsar) named Ethan. Ethan rescued Bailey from the inside of a hot car and with the support of his mother (Rylance) and over the grumbling of his salesman father (Kirby) he is allowed to keep him.

As Ethan grows into his teen years (Apa) it becomes clear that his father is a drunk and abusive as well, frustrated over his lack of success. Ethan has become a high school football star and through Bailey’s timely intervention, the boyfriend of beautiful Hannah (Robertson). He is well on his way to a college scholarship but a tragic accident changes Ethan’s life forever.

Ethan does go off to college but only after breaking up with Hannah. Bailey goes into a tailspin (no pun intended) without Ethan and not long afterwards, his health fails and Bailey passes on. However, to Bailey’s surprise he wakes up young…and female. Now he’s…I mean, she’s…Ellie, a police dog whose handler (Miller) is lonely and maybe content to be that way – or maybe not. Still, Ellie is brave as can be and a fine partner for Al until…

…she comes back, this time as Tino, a chubby corgi who becomes the object of affection for college student Maya (Howell-Baptiste). Their relationship continues on past graduation and after Maya gets married and starts a family. It continues until it’s Tino’s time to leave and he comes back as…

Buddy, a lovable St. Bernard who ends up chained in the front yard of a dilapidated shack, ignored and neglected and occasionally abused, wondering what it all means until at last he finds a way to someplace familiar…someone who he remembers (Quaid).

Hallström has never shied away from sentiment and this might be the most sentimental of all his films. It’s based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron and while there are some differences in plot line, it is essentially the same where it matters. The subject matter is essentially a dog wondering what the point of it all is; what is his/her purpose in life and what is it about buttholes that is so dang appealing?

Of course this is really about the place of all of us in the universe, not just dogs. Do we just live and then die? It’s heady stuff for a family film and why the Judeo-Christian tradition of heaven and hell is largely ignored here, the film does suggest that our place in the universe is largely determined by how much we love. Dogs are a metaphor in that regard because after all, who is more loving than man’s best friend?

Some might be aware of the video that went viral just before the film that was released that showed one of the dogs – the one who plays Ellie – apparently being forced into the water and being submerged. It should be said that while PETA and other animal rights groups made a big deal out of it, as it turns out the video was doctored and CGI was used of the dog in the water. There’s no doubt that the film crew did have a reluctant dog that should not have been forced into the water (it had more to do with the position of where they were filming the stunt rather than the stunt itself which the dog performed on other occasions without incident) but there was no abuse going on and Hercules, the stunt dog in question, is alive and well. It’s another case of people manipulating truth to suit their own agendas.

The performances here are adequate. You know the old showbiz adage of working with animals and children – it applies here. The best performances tend to come courtesy of those with four paws. That’s not in any way denigrating the two-legged actors here; Quaid is fine as always and Apa looks to be an Elar Coltrane in the making. The focus is on the dogs here and so the humans tend to be more background than anything.

Some movies are tailor-made for critics and others are not; this falls in the latter category. For the most part critics don’t like emotionally manipulative films and this one is certainly that. Yes, the movie is rife with clichés and that’s a problem but I don’t think that kids are all that picky about such things. There are at least two or three places where tears were flowing down my cheeks without shame. As catharsis goes you won’t get better than what I got here in most any film.

REASONS TO GO: Dog lovers will be absolutely charmed. The film examines some pretty deep questions in a non-lofty manner. There’s a Middle American sensibility here.
REASONS TO STAY: Those who don’t like having their emotions manipulated won’t like this at all.
FAMILY VALUES: Children and sensitive sorts (particularly about animals) may have a hard time with the peril several dogs (and the family) are put into and may be unable to handle the passing of various dogs in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bradley Cooper was originally slated to voice the various dogs in the movie but the scheduling couldn’t be worked out so Josh Gad was hired instead. Also, the bulk of the movie was filmed in Winnipeg.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Old Yeller
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Death Race 2050

I Am Not Your Negro


James Baldwin listens intently.

(2016) Documentary (Magnolia) Samuel L. Jackson (narrator), James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Dick Cavett, Robert F. Kennedy, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Barack Obama, John Wayne, Henry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Sidney Poitier, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rodney King, Michele Obama. Directed by Raoul Peck

 

James Baldwin at one point says in this documentary “The story of America is the story of the Negro and it isn’t a pretty story.” For those who don’t know, James Baldwin was a gay African-American writer who during the Civil Rights era became a prominent and outspoken representative for civil rights. Articulate, intelligent and respected, his was a voice that was angry but one that invited dialogue. There isn’t much of that going on today.

In 1979 he author sent a letter to his literary agent Jay Acton outlining a proposal for a book project entitled Remember the House. In it he said that he wanted to examine the civil rights movement and America itself through the murders of three of his friends; Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. When Baldwin passed away in 1987 he’d completed only 30 pages of manuscript.

Documentary director Peck wondered what that book might have turned out to be. Using Baldwin’s own words from the Acton letter as well as the manuscript itself (all of which is read by Samuel L. Jackson), he uses archival footage of Baldwin doing talk shows, delivering speeches and lecturing at universities to flesh out the written words.

Peck also uses footage of modern race-related issues like the events in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of Trayvon Martin to reinforce that the more that things change, the more they stay the same. Baldwin was one of the most brilliant men of the 20th century and he spent a significant portion of his life in self-exile in France, much like leading African-American artists did to escape American racism. That gave him a certain amount of perspective, but he also clearly loved his country and almost inevitably when he felt he needed to lend his voice to what was happening, he would return home.

His observations are eerily timeless, speaking as much to modern audiences as to those of the 50s and 60s. At times it seems he could be talking about incidents that occurred just last week. He speaks in a cultured, urbane voice – something else we’ve lost as a society – and reminds us that once upon a time we had discourse in America, not just attempts to shout each other down. One wonders what he would have thought of the current President and of how social media has changed our country and how we receive information.

This documentary brilliantly weaves the archival and modern images with Baldwin’s words, not only reminding us that he was a great man (which he was) but also that we haven’t learned very much from him. The Oscar-nominated documentary really has a single flaw but it’s kind of a big one; it tends to flog the same points over and over again, but then again perhaps we need that since as mentioned a moment ago we really haven’t learned our lesson yet. Hopefully seeing this documentary might motivate some of you to read some of his books (I know I’m going to be checking out Amazon for at least one or two) but also to remind us that while we have made some progress, we still have a hell of a long way to go.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and depressing, the film shows us how little we’ve progressed in half a century. Some truly remarkable archival material brings the Civil Rights era to life.
REASONS TO STAY: An element of flogging the same points over and over again does occur.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images are violent and disturbing; there is also some profanity including racial slurs, adult themes and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word “negro” is used 78 times in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonVudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: A Dog’s Purpose