All Eyez on Me


Everyone wants to rap with ‘Pac.

(2017) Musical Biography (CODEBLACK) Demetrius Shipp Jr., Danai Gurira, Kat Graham, Hill Harper, Annie Ilonzeh, Lauren Cohan, Keith Robinson, Jamal Woolard, Dominic L. Santana, Cory Hardrict, Clifton Powell, Jamie Hector, DeRay Davis, Chris Clarke, Ronald Brooks, Jarrett Ellis, Erica Pinkett, Rayven Symone Ferrell, Josh Ventura, Chanel Young. Directed by Benny Boom

 

Tupac Shakur remains one of the most vital and influential artists of the 20th century; while there have been documentaries on his brief but meteoric life, there hasn’t been a biopic up until now. Shipp as ‘Pac is a dead ringer for the late rapper and displays at least some of the charisma that Tupac possessed; some have groused that Shipp is not even close in that aspect but that’s like bitching about a match because it isn’t the sun. For my money he did a pretty decent job and has nothing to be ashamed of.

The movie is a touch over two hours long and sadly you feel every moment of it. We get little sense of Tupac the artist and instead we spend a whole lot of time seeing Tupac the party animal. The movie reinforces a lot of the stereotypes Middle America has of rap culture – the misogyny, the violence, the drugs and alcohol and the conspicuous consumption. At no point during the course of the movie do we see Tupac actually creating anything; mostly we see him railing against the forces that were against him, hanging out with his boys and getting in confrontations with rivals. We get the highlights of his turbulent life and most of the soundtrack is made up of his more pop-oriented songs which may serve as a nice introduction to those unfamiliar with his work but will likely frustrate his fans.

Shakur is one of the most important artists of the last decade of the 20th century and his genius reverberates through modern rap without any let-up since his 1996 murder (which remains unsolved to this day) at the age of 25. He deserves a film that is as powerful as the music he created, but this isn’t it. What this is however is a fairly bland introduction to the life and music of Tupac and for now it will just have to do.

REASONS TO GO: Shipp is a star in the making.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie concentrates too much on the parties and the thug life and not enough on Tupac as an artist.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, violence, sexuality, nudity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shipp’s father worked with Death Row Records as a producer and produced some of Tupac’s work near the end of his life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straight Outta Compton
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cars 3

The Rape of Recy Taylor


Portrait of a brave woman.

(2017) Drama (Augusta) Richard Corbitt, Alma Daniels, Recy Taylor, Crystal Feimster, James Johnson II, Danielle McGuire, Leamon Lee, James York, Larry Smith, Chris Money, Tommy Bernardi (voice), Tom Gibbs (voice), Jack Kyser, John L. Payne, Esther Cooper Jackson, Cynthia Erivo. Directed by Nancy Buirski

We like to think of America as a great shining beacon, a light of freedom and democracy for the entire world. However, it is no secret that America has its dark side as well, from its treatment of native peoples (some would say attempted genocide) to the advent of slavery. It is the latter that shapes our country perhaps most negatively, from ongoing displays of racism and thuggery to the demeaning of black culture and African-American achievements to the segregation of the black community and accompanying lack of educational and career opportunities that white children take for granted.

African-American women have in many ways borne the brunt of the post-bellum white American racism. In the days of King Cotton and plantations, white slave owners routinely used black women as sexual objects, sometimes allowing their teenage sons to pick out a particularly fetching slave to use to initiate them into sexual manhood, although this is scarcely the behavior of men. Then again, the white slave owning population didn’t see their black chattel as human; they were to be used as they saw fit and if that was brutal, well, it was a step up from the jungles, wasn’t it?

That attitude persisted well after the end of the Civil War (some would say it persists to this day). In 1944, a 24-year-old mother of a 9-month-old daughter and wife of a sharecropper named Recy Taylor was walking home from church when she was approached by six teenage white boys in a car who force her into the car at gunpoint. They drove her blindfolded into a remote part of the woods, raping her repeatedly over the course of three to four hours, causing so much internal damage that the young woman would never be able to bear children again. After the ordeal, the boys dropped her off at the side of the road with a stern warning to tell nobody.

In those days, it was not unusual for African-American women to be sexually assaulted by white men but it was extremely rare for those sorts of sexual assaults to go reported, particularly in places like Abbeville, Alabama where the assault took place. Nonetheless when Recy arrived home the first thing she did was report the incident, identifying as many of the attackers as she could.

Local sheriff Louis Corbitt (whose family owned Recy’s ancestors and after the 13th Amendment freed them, the ex-slaves took the Corbitt family name as their own) reluctantly took the statement but did nothing. The boys were questioned and released. Recy, who’d never had any trouble with the police – none in her family ever had – was falsely labeled a prostitute. With the help of the NAACP and their lead investigator Rosa Parks (yes, that Rosa Parks) Recy persisted in search of justice which in the Deep South was a rare thing for African-Americans to achieve. Despite two trips to the grand jury – made up of all white men – nobody was ever charged with the crime.

Documentary filmmaker Buirski was inspired by the book At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire (the author appears as an expert here) telling the tale of Taylor, who was a cause célèbre in the black press which widely reported the story around the country whereas it was largely ignored by the mainstream press which largely ignored crimes against African-Americans (and some would say it still does). The efforts of the black press largely forced the Alabama governor to conduct an investigation which would lead to a second grand jury and while the results remained the same, it had more to do with the color of the defendants and more so the color of the victim than with any semblance of law.

There are a lot of talking heads here, including the surviving members of Taylor’s family – mainly her younger brother and sister Richard Corbitt and Alma Daniels – and a variety of experts. While I’m not a fan of interview overuse, I have to admit that Crystal Feimster, an academic from Yale whose expertise on the history of the Civil Rights movement is put to good use here, is impressive. Articulate to the point of eloquence, she clearly and intelligently brings the plight of black women of that era to bold life. She rightly assigns them credit for being a driving force in the Civil Rights movement, connecting the dots from Recy Taylor to Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King. Whenever Feimster is on camera, my ears would always perk up because I knew she would have something insightful to say.

But this isn’t all just talking heads. Buirski deftly weaves in rare archival footage, family films and “race films” – movies made by black filmmakers for black audiences going back to the silent era until the mid-50s. They have gone largely ignored except for all but the most dedicated film buffs and academics so seeing some clips from these films was doubly thrilling for this critic, both from a historic standpoint and from a cinematic standpoint. The first image we see, in fact, was from a race film – a terrified black woman running down a country road, clearly in fear for her life. Although it was uncommon to discuss rape or portray it onscreen in those days, race films depicted it as a part of life because for black women, it was just that.

The state of Alabama would go on to issue an official apology for its handling of her case some 70 years after the fact but the movie doesn’t necessarily have an all-positive message; family members of the rapists still view the acts of their siblings as the actions of boys just acting like boys; things just got a little bit out of control, that’s all. It is disturbing that even now, approaching three quarters of a century later, there is no ownership of these heinous actions and no accepting of blame. One wonders if it would be any different for them if the victim had been white.

This is a movie that should be shown in every high school in America, not only because it graphically illustrates the ugly aspects of racism but also of sexism as well. All of the perpetrators of this crime were high school age. They regarded African-Americans as sub-human and women, particularly black women, as objects meant to be used to satisfy their carnal desires. We continue to live in a rape culture now; the real consequences of that  culture are excellently documented here. Adding to the tone is a brilliant pairing of Dinah Washington’s jagged “This Bitter Earth” with the elegiac strings of Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight.

It should also be said that the film’s title should warn those who are sensitive or prone to being triggered; while the description of Recy’s attack (and an attempted sexual assault on another woman) aren’t graphic, they may bring some painful and unwanted memories to the foreground. Be cautious in that regard.

Given the events at Charlottesville this past summer or the ongoing demonization of Black Lives Matter and of those protesting police brutality against African-Americans, there is little doubt that race relations in the Land of the Free still have a long, painful way to go. What I find most depressing is that while we may console ourselves that “these things happened 70 years ago, things are different now” I have my doubts that if a 24-year-old African-American wife and mother walking home from church in 2017 were to be raped by five white men that the outcome would be any different.

REASONS TO GO: The archival and “race film” footage is fascinating. Feimster is an eloquent and intelligent speaker. The film is powerful and moving. Here you’ll find a very specific and damning account of racism.
REASONS TO STAY: There are an awful lot of talking heads here. Although not graphic, the depictions of rape and attempted rape may be disturbing to survivors.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains descriptions of sexual assault and racially-motivated violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buirski is the founder of the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13th
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Columbus

India’s Daughter


Protesters stand up for women's rights in India - even when they can't stand.

Protesters stand up for women’s rights in India – even when they can’t stand.

(2015) Documentary (Paladin) Asha Singh, Badri Singh, A.P. Singh, Dr. Maria Misra, Laila Seth, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, Kalyani Singh, Satendra, M.L. Sharma, Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Mango Lal, Dr. Sandeep Govil, Amod Kanth, Raj Kumar, Kavita Krishnan, Pramod Kishwa, Dr. Rashmi Ahuja, Pratibha Sharma, Gupal Subramanium, Puneeta Devi, Sheila Dixit. Directed by Leslee Udwin

It is estimated that a woman is raped in India every 20 minutes. It is a huge problem in the sub-continent which is an emerging global economic power. Part of the issue revolves around cultural attitudes towards women which can only be described as barbaric, backwards and unenlightened.

Jyoti Singh was a 23 year old medical student with a bright future ahead of her. When she was born, her mother Asha and father Badri “celebrated as if they’d had a boy,” which is unusual even in Delhi where the Singhs live. Although relatively poor (Badri is a worker at Delhi’s airport), they had land that they intended to give Jyoti as a dowry when she got married.

Jyoti had other ideas. Her dream was to bring modern medical care to impoverished villages such as the one where the Singhs held ancestral land; she convinced her parents to sell the land so she could get the education she needed. When they agreed, the rest of the family was dumbfounded. Jyoti’s tutor Satendra described the family as “traditional with a progressive mindset.”

On December 16, 2012 Jyoti had completed her last exam and would start her internship the following day. Her entry into medicine would mean a lucrative salary that would enable to bring her family out of poverty. A friend invited her to see the movie Life of Pi and she went for an evening out.

At about 9:30pm, she and her friend boarded a private bus that offered to take her home. As recounted by Mukesh Singh (no relation), the driver of the bus, several of his friends who were along for the ride – his brother Ram Singh, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma and a juvenile whose name has been unrevealed due to Indian law, approached the couple and asked them why they were out so late when Jyoti’s friend was clearly not her husband, her father or her brother. When the friend told them to mind their own business, he was viciously attacked and beaten. The other men then dragged Jyoti into the back of the bus and proceeded to rape her over and over while the bus circled around the streets and highways of Delhi, the girl screaming for help throughout.

The rape was a brutal one; she was beaten, bitten (dental impressions were among the forensics used to find and convict the men) and raped so savagely not only by the men but using a crowbar as an insertion that the juvenile, who appears to have been particularly bloodthirsty, reached inside her and pulled out her intestines. The bus finally stopped across from a hotel and the two victims were thrown off and left for dead.

A passing police patrolmen discovered them – they were astonishingly still alive – and summoned an ambulance. While her friend would recover from his beating, Jyoti would linger on for several days before succumbing to her injuries. The doctors who treated her described it as a minor miracle that she had not been dead on the scene.

The incident galvanized Indian women. Protests erupted in the streets of Delhi and elsewhere and despite some police overreaction (tear gas grenades and water cannons were used against the mostly female crowds) the government of India convened a special legal committee to look into the laws governing sexual assault in India headed up by the respected judge Laila Seth and some real changes were made.

Director Udwin interviews Mukesh who clearly feels no remorse for what happened – in fact, in his view the bitch had it coming because she was out late and not properly escorted. If she hadn’t fought back, he opined, it wouldn’t have been so bad, as if women are supposed to simply accept that they are being raped and move on. Mukesh, like his friends residents of a Delhi slum, can quite conceivably blame his archaic attitudes to ignorance and poverty.

What is jaw-dropping however is that his lawyers A.P. Singh (again, no relation to the victim) and M.L. Sharma – who are presumably well-educated  – reflect the same attitudes. How much of it is legal grandstanding in order to support their clients is debatable but it is clear that the attitudes towards India are outdated at best and misogynistic for certain. These attitudes are colliding with the desires of Indian women, who see how women in the West are enjoying careers and independence, to have the same for themselves. Udwin exposes this conflict dispassionately and looks at the incident as a catalyst. However, one can’t help but feel affected by the obvious grief of the girl’s parents. Jyoti, whom the Indian media dubbed “India’s Daughter” (hence the title of the documentary) became a symbol but we get a sense of who the girl was, although she only appears in the movie as pictures of a toddler for the most part.

There are a few flaws here. The format is very much like an American television newsmagazine program which means a whole lot of talking heads. The musical score occasionally, in order to sound ominous I suppose, is a bit overbearing and sounds like it was purchased in the same way as stock footage. While there is plenty of footage of the rioting and protests that followed Jyoti, there is little footage of the woman herself which may well be at the request of her family, who were at the center of a media storm in India back when this all happened; I can imagine they wouldn’t want a repeat of that.

At the end of the short but powerful documentary (which has aired on British television already), Udwin scrolls statistics of sexual assault, female genital mutilation and other sexual violence against women from various countries around the globe and those statistics are sobering. India isn’t the only place where women are raped after all, but perhaps their attitudes towards women may be more openly misogynistic than in other more supposedly developed countries where that misogyny is hidden below the surface but no less uncivilized. This could be an early contender for the Documentary feature Oscar. However, you won’t be able to see this in the country where perhaps it would do the most good – India has banned the film because of the views espoused by the rapists and their defenders which shows that India has a very long way to go in making things better. Sweeping a problem under the rug and ignoring it is generally the best way for that problem to grow worse.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally raw. An eye-opening look at attitudes towards rape and women in general in India. Complete look at the issue. Respectful to the victim.
REASONS TO STAY: Talking heads. Occasionally overbearing score.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent and sexual content, including graphic descriptions of rape and mutilation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Garfield has worn facial hair in a film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Back in Time

Midnight Meat Train


Midnight Meat Train

Bradley Cooper demonstrates the wrong way to get on a subway train.

(2008) Horror (Lionsgate) Bradley Cooper, Brooke Shields, Vinnie Jones, Leslie Bibb, Roger Bart, Peter Jacobson, Barbara Eve Harris, Ted Raimi, Stephanie Mace, Tony Curran, NorA, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Dan Callahan. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura

 

Big cities hide their secrets zealously. The bigger the city, the more difficult it can be to pry those secrets loose. In a city the size of New York City, it can be well-nigh impossible – and quite deadly to those who even try.

Leon (Cooper) is a photographer who specializes in crime scenes and fairly dark subjects. His girlfriend Maya (Bibb) through her friend Jurgis (Bart) gets Leon an audience with well-known art dealer Susan Hoff (Shields). She likes some of his work but needs Leon to go deeper – get at the truth. Go somewhere dangerous.

And what could be more dangerous than the New York subway after midnight? Certainly model Erika Sakaki (NorA) finds this out first-hand when a group of young toughs surround her, threatening to sexually assault her. Only the timely intervention of Leon pointing out that their whole tete-a-tete is being caught on security camera saves her. She shows her gratitude by allowing him to take a few pictures of her, then plants a kiss on him before getting on her train and heading off into the night.

Except that she never gets off that train. Leon finds out a few days later that she has turned up missing and Leon realizes he may well have been the last person to see her alive. He takes his pictures to the police who are indifferent, so he decides to investigate on his own. While checking out the subway station he sees a hulking, well-dressed man who appeared in his last photo of the missing girl – he was on board the same train as she was when she disappeared. Figuring this can’t be a coincidence, he begins to follow the man.

The man, who we later find out is known as Mahogany (Jones), shows up at a butcher’s shop. He is apparently mute (until the very end of the film when he speaks the only three words of dialogue he has in the movie) and imposing. However, Leon proves to be an inept investigator in one sense; Mahogany soon realizes he’s being stalked. However, Leon does manage to discover that Mahogany is brutally murdering people on the late night trains with a misshapen butcher’s hammer, and then hanging them on portable meat hooks while the subway train goes off on a silent siding.

Now the cat and mouse game gets deadly as both Maya and Jurgis get sucked into Leon’s obsession. Still, there’s an even more terrible secret lurking on that forgotten side track; one which only one of them will walk away from.

This is based on a short story by horror master Clive Barker – in fact it is the very first story in the first volume of his 8-book Books of Blood series. The movie version was announced with great fanfare in 2007 and 2008 as horror fans anticipated what the trailers promised was a taut, mesmerizing gorefest. However, a regime change at Lionsgate saw the film thrown into a series of delaying actions before finally getting about 100 screens, all in dollar theaters rather than in first-run houses before moving quickly to home video.

Horror fans (and Barker) howled in protest at the mistreatment of the film. They have a pretty good case – as horror movies go, this is better than average. It is far from perfect – for one thing, this would have made a pretty good hour-long short on some cable anthology series but the overall story doesn’t really support a full-length feature. It feels sometimes stretched out a bit too thin, particularly the portions where Maya and Jurgis are doing their own investigating.

In addition, Cooper who would find stardom with The Hangover just a year later, was miscast here. He is stiff and somewhat flat; I don’t get the sense that he ever really got a handle on the part. My take is that while Kitamura speaks pretty good English, he might not have necessarily been able to communicate what he wanted precisely to Cooper but that’s just conjecture. It does bring the film down a notch.

Some of the kills use obvious CGI for the blood and gore. Remember the good old days when all that was done with practical effects, make-up and puppets? Some of the CGI gore looks it and when you notice it, it takes you  right out of the environment of the film and it’s much like being awakened from a dream by someone throwing a bucket full of cold water into your face.

That said, there is plenty to like about the film as well. Kitamura is a more than capable director. He takes Barker’s story and translates it beautifully to the screen, combining elements of his own background in J-horror along with Dario Argento-esque Italian horror and throws in Big Apple ‘tude on top of it all, from the haughty snobbery of Shield’s West Village art cognoscenti, the indifference of the cops and media to a series of disappearances going on right under their noses and the cocksure tough guys haunting the streets and subways after dark. It’s a heady mix.

So yes this is flawed but overall there’s much more right with it than not. For one thing, Jones makes an intimidating villain, such a presence here that you wonder if he hasn’t been underutilized in his other films. Bibb, who like Cooper has mostly done comedies to this point, makes a fine scream queen and gets her sexy on in a couple of scenes here. This was one that the studio messed up on – it deserved more than a token contractual obligation release and might have made a good deal more coin than it did had the new regime shown a little more faith in the product but sadly, it seems like the Lionsgate brass has turned their back on the horror genre that essentially built the studio (the Saw and Tyler Perry franchises the twin pedestals that the studio was built on) which makes it all the more ironic that they had gotten into such financial difficulties that they had to merge with Summit earlier this year. Sometimes poetic justice just…happens.

WHY RENT THIS: Combines J-horror with giallo and meets it in the middle with a New York attitude. Jones is at his brooding best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cooper is unconvincing as the horror hero. Over-reliance on CGI gore does occasionally jolt one violently out of the mood.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence and gore, quite a bit in fact; nudity (most of it grisly), some sex and of course plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of Clive Barker’s paintings are seen hanging in Susan Hoff’s art gallery.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on author Clive Barker and actor Vinnie Jones.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie might have made money but then again it might not have.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW:High Fidelity