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

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Multiple Sarcasms


 

Multiple Sarcasms

Stockard Channing reluctantly admits how many times she laughed in the movie.

(2010) Drama (Multiple Avenue) Timothy Hutton, Dana Delaney, Mira Sorvino, Mario van Peebles, India Ennenga, Laila Robins, Stockard Channing, Nadia Dassouki, Joan Jett, Chris Sarandon, Alex Manette, Julia K. Murray, Stephen Singer, Steve Sirkis. Directed by Brooks Branch

 

Mid-life crises are nothing to sneeze at. It is a time when we feel the most self-doubt; a sinking feeling that things are as good as they’re ever going to be, that the things we haven’t yet accomplished never will be. Self-doubt becomes our friend and we often make sweeping changes as kind of a last hurrah to our youth.

Gabriel (Hutton) is a successful architect who is married to Annie (Delaney), a devoted wife and has a wonderful daughter, Elizabeth (Ennenga) who is full of joy. He lives in a beautiful home in Manhattan and has everything going for him. While it’s 1979 and the Reagan era is just about to begin, things are looking good for Gabriel.

Except he isn’t happy. While all the elements (you would think) should add up to happiness, the equation just doesn’t work. He is moping and feeling somehow unfulfilled and decides to write a play about it. He finds himself an agent (Channing) and at her urging, begins writing, using incidents from his own life and family to act out his misery.

This brings on some resentment, particularly in his patient wife who has put up with his moping for some time. Gabriel is also finding some attraction to his long-time platonic friend Cari (Sorvino) who runs a hip CBGB-esque nightclub. She feels much the same way but rejects his advances, knowing that an affair between the two of them would be bad for both of them.

As Gabriel places more and more of his attention on his project, he loses his job and his relationship with Annie crumbles. Will his mid-life crisis lead to him losing everything in his life that matters?

There is a decent movie to be had here but what we kind of end up with is a mess. While Hutton is normally a fine performer and he has a strong supporting cast behind him, he is given a role which while it harkens a bit to the films of John Cassavetes lacks the depth of character that Cassavetes was known for. Here, Gabriel’s general despondency feels more like a plot contrivance than anything genuine.

It seems reasonable to assume that Gabriel feels that he is married to the wrong woman; certainly that’s not uncommon among men of middle age. It is also true that men going through the middle age blues tend to do incredibly dumbass things. In that sense, Branch (who also co-wrote this) gets it right. What he fails to do is capitalize on it. The events aren’t organic; it’s like the writers wrote an outline of the story, decided what they wanted to do and never gave a thought as to how to get there properly.

That’s a shame because there is plenty of fertile ground to explore. Branch also lucked out in getting a lively performance from Ennenga, who might turn out to be the most memorable aspect of this film. She lights up the screen whenever she’s on. I do hope that she attracts some notice for it but in all honesty this micro-indie didn’t get much of a release and while it’s been popping up on Showtime from time to time, hasn’t been on the radar for many and for good reason. With a more polished script and a bit more insight, this could have been marvelous instead of mediocre. Maybe the next one will be a better bet.

WHY RENT THIS: Hutton is fine and Ennenga is marvelous.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overbearing at times, preposterous at others. Gabriel’s mid-life crisis feels more like a plot point than a genuine issue.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of sexual references as well as a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Joan Jett makes a cameo as a 1979-era punk singer.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $29,731 on an unreported production budget; I’m quite sure this failed to recoup its costs.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Peep World

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Freebie

A Thousand Words


A Thousand Words

Eddie Murphy takes out his frustration after Cliff Curtis reads him some of the reviews of his latest film.

(2012) Fantasy Comedy (DreamWorks) Eddie Murphy, Cliff Curtis, Kerry Washington, Clark Duke, Allison Janney, Ruby Dee, Jack McBrayer, Alain Chabat, Lennie Loftin, David Burke, Emmanuel Ragsdale, Eshaya Draper, Sarah Scott Davis, Brian Gallivan, Steven M. Gagnon. Directed by Brian Robbins

 

Words are paramount. We communicate everything with them; civilization would be impossible without them and yet we use them to obfuscate, to twist the truth, to spin lies. Some of us use words as tools; others as weapons. However, words are meaningless without the underlying concepts and emotions behind them. Without truth, words are as empty as the space they fill.

Jack McGill (Murphy) knows all about words. He is a literary agent, one who makes a living selling words. The irony is that Jack isn’t much of a reader. A good book, he tells his youthful assistant Aaron Wiseburger (Duke), is good in the first five pages and the last five pages – everything else in between is just filler.

Jack has his sights set on Dr. Sinja (Curtis), a new age slash kinda Buddhist philosopher who has been gaining an amazing worldwide following. Rumor has it he’s written a book and Jack can see dollar signs all over the puppy. He goes to Sinja’s temple, posing as a follower and wrangles his way into a personal audience with the good Doctor.

Jack makes his pitch and manages to convince Sinja that he has his best interests at heart, that he believes in his message and wants to spread it. The only message that Jack believes in however is the message that money delivers. And that message often gets in the way of his life.

His wife  (or is it girlfriend? this isn’t made clear) Caroline (Washington) wants to live in a house that is more suitable for a family; they are living in what is essentially Jack’s old bachelor pad and Jack who loves the amenities and the view is loathe to give it up for a suburban split-level. Caroline wants Jack to spend more time with their son Tyler (Ragsdale) but Jack’s manic career precludes that. However, he makes time to visit his Alzheimer’s-stricken mom (Dee) in the home on her birthday; she confuses him with his father, who passed away when Jack was a little boy and for that Jack has been unable to forgive him.

One night a Bodhi tree appears in their yard, fully formed with a thousand leaves on it. Jack is puzzled at first but he quickly figures out that for each word that he speaks or writes, a leaf falls. Dr. Sinja explains that once the Bodhi tree loses all its leaves, the tree will die and since Jack is somehow linked to the tree, he will die as well.

The rest of the movie is about Jack’s attempts to communicate non-verbally in a world where he is expected to speak. There is some hilarity because whatever happens to the tree happens to Jack as well; if it’s watered Jack gets wet; if fungicide is sprayed on it, Jack coughs. If squirrels run around its trunk playfully, Jack is tickled. You get my drift.

It also gives Eddie Murphy the opportunity to mug outrageously with twisted lips, eyes as wide as saucers and arched eyebrows. This gives him the look of a black constipated  Don Ameche from Cocoon doing an impression of Bette Davis while auditioning for “Project: Runway.” It’s unsettling to say the least.

This was actually filmed in 2008 (pre-Tower Heist) and is one in a long line of Murphy mis-fires (i.e. Meet Dave, Imagine That, The Adventures of Pluto Nash ad nauseam). This isn’t strictly a family movie but it isn’t very funny either. The sad part is most of the best humor comes from Duke, who made an indelible impression in Hot Tub Time Machine. Murphy has always been one of the better verbal comics and robbing him of his most effective weapon is a ballsy move but one that ultimately doesn’t pay off here.

Hopefully his work on Heist will have generated some better scripts for Murphy, although clearly his Oscar-winning turn in Dreamgirls didn’t. There is plenty of concept here, but the execution is tired and lame. Nothing unexpected happens, there are no laugh-out-loud moments and the comedy is pretty low-brow generally speaking. Movies like this one, which are mediocre at best, make me wonder how long it will be before Murphy’s films start going direct-to-home-video.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few mildly amusing moments. Duke gets most of the laughs.

REASONS TO STAY: Another family-oriented Murphy comedy that isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. All concept and no execution.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there, some sexual dialogue and a bit of drug humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third movie that Murphy has been directed by Robbins in, the first two being Norbit and Meet Dave. It is also the first one of the three not to have the lead character’s name in the title.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 26/100. The reviews are bad, bad, bad!

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Liar, Liar

TREE LOVERS: While the Bodhi tree is a real tree (remarkable for its heart-shaped leaves) the one in the film is not.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Maiden Heist