Barry


Even reading a Ralph Ellison book in a Harlem schoolyard as a 20-year-old, the future President can’t get away from Joe Biden!

(2016) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Jay, Jason Mitchell, Ellar Coltrane Jenna Elfman, Linus Roache, Avi Nash, John Benjamin Hickey, Ashley Judd, Sawyer Pierce, Eric Berryman, Ralph Rodriguez, Danny Henriquez, Tessa Albertson, Tommy Nelson, Annabelle Attanasio, Matt Ball, Markita Prescott. Directed by Vikram Gandhi

 

Barack Obama is a President who has provoked very extreme reactions. To the left he is a hero, a model of decorum and grace, whose intelligence and class has carried him through one of the roughest most vitriolic attacks from the opposition in the history of the Presidency. To the right he is nothing short of a terrorist, a Muslim whose mission was to destroy our country from within. There are some who take the middle ground between the two of course but largely those two extremes have been the popular conception from each political point of view.

But there was a time before that when he was just an ordinary college student. Back then, everyone called him Barry (Terrell) and he had about as much confidence in his future as any college student, maybe even less so. I suspect if anyone had told Barry that he was going to be the 44th President of the United States he’d probably want some of what you’ve been smoking – Barry after all is not above occasionally partaking in the wacky weed.

He has just transferred to Columbia University in New York City looking for a degree in political science. The product of a white mother and an African father, his parents are divorced; his mom is in Hawaii where he grew up, his dad has returned to Kenya. Barry is trying to write a letter to his dad to express what he feels but can’t find the words. Barry also feels like an outside in both the white and African-American spheres.

He meets Charlotte (Joy), the daughter of wealthy parents and the two begin dating but as always Barry isn’t sure where he fits in. He plays street ball with local guys from the neighborhood like PJ (Mitchell) with whom he strikes up a friendship, but he feels like an outsider. Similarly he doesn’t belong in the world of country clubs and pricey restaurants that his girlfriend is used to. His roommate Will (Coltrane) tries to help but mostly the two get high together.

To my way of thinking this isn’t so much a biography of the President as it is an exploration of how young men can be lost in not knowing who they are. Of course, it’s especially true for someone in Barry’s situation but it should ring true for just about everybody. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a biography in any case (Charlotte, for one thing, is a composite character) but it supposedly reflects Obama’s inner turmoil and his personality pretty well at that time of his life.

The overall tone is pretty laid-back which flirts with actual boredom from time to time. There is a whole lot of philosophizing going on and not a ton of conflict. Most of the conflict is pretty much internal; while Obama struggles with finding a place he’s truly comfortable with in both the white world and the African-American and there are moments in which he feels discrimination from both sides, it isn’t as if he is overly oppressed here. There are times he is hassled by a University Security guard for likely the color of his skin. He also is targeted by angry African-Americans who resent the opportunities he is getting because of his Caucasian blood.

Terrell does a pretty good job of playing Obama, capturing his very recognizable cadence of speech. This isn’t always a flattering portrait but then again, think of yourself as a 20-year-old and see if a film biography of you at that age will be one you’re particularly proud of. It’s a pretty layered performance and Terrell captures the essence of the man. How close it is to the real man is best left answered by those who know the ex-President well (which certainly doesn’t describe me) but I think that there are at least elements of the real Barack Obama here, or at least the real Barack Obama at 20.

As I’ve said with similar movies about public figures of recent years, I don’t know that this gives us any real insight into the heart and mind of our 44th president who is a notoriously private individual. It isn’t scintillating material but those who admire President Obama will find this interesting. Those who feel the opposite aren’t going to watch this anyway.

REASONS TO GO: It seems to be an attempt to humanize the 44th President by portraying him as a young college student trying to find himself.
REASONS TO STAY: I thought it went a little too low-key.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find a little bit of violence, some drug use, a smidgen of sensuality and a small amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film of both director Vikram Gandhi and star Devon Terrell.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Southside With You

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The Search for General Tso


A documentary that will make you hungry to see it again an hour later.

A documentary that will make you hungry to see it again an hour later.

(2014) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Cecilia Chiang, Peter Kwong, Bonnie Tsui, Liang Xiao Jin, Philip Chiang, Andrew Coe, Chef Peng Chang-Kuei, Harley Spiller, Tammy Fong, Sue Lee, David Leong, Cyrstyl Mo, Wing Wah Leong, Don Siegel, Ed Schoenfeld, Wing Yee Leong, Renqiu Yu, Fuschia Dunlop, Wang Pinduan, Robert G. Lee, Fred Wong, Susan Carter, Ella Lee, Lily Han. Directed by Ian Cheney

Florida Film Festival 2015

There probably isn’t an American above the age of five who hasn’t had Chinese food of one sort or another during their lives and for a good percentage of Americans above that age, Chinese is a regular cuisine on the menus of our lives. And of all of those, most have at least tried if not fallen in love with General Tso’s Chicken, the most popular dish in Chinese cuisine in the United States, and other than pizza and maybe tacos, the most popular ethnic dish in America.

But how did it get to be that way? Who is General Tso exactly and why did this chicken dish get named for him? Was it General Tso himself who invented the dish or did someone else do that? And how do you make it?

Good questions all and each one is answered in this lively documentary which has a very compact one hour and thirteen minute run time. Cheney interviews a wide variety of subjects from historians and authors on Chinese-American culture to restaurant owners and chefs. Here he paints a vivid picture of a race that came to America’s gold fields in the 19th century and stayed on as laborers. Racial prejudices on the West Coast, which were extreme when it came to Chinese workers, led to the enactment of the Exclusion Act which made it nearly impossible for new workers to immigrate to the United States and made life intolerable for those who were already here, who then spread throughout the country with essentially only two careers available to them; launderers and restaurant owners.

This is much cultural anthropology as it is foodie doc, and while there are some nifty animations that help keep things light, the undercurrent has some surprising depth to it as we see how difficult to achieve the American dream was for Asians even in recent times, as one Missouri restaurant owner calmly explains how his father’s restaurant was dynamited shortly before it was to open and even once it did, there were picketers exhorting him to return to China since the local white population didn’t want Asian business owners, and this was less than 50 years ago.

It also raises the question of authenticity. General Tso’s chicken, which has a sweet and spicy taste to it, is expressly for American tastes; you won’t find the dish in this form in China, particularly in the Hunan province where the real General Tso (yes, there was one) once lived. We also discover that a chef from Taipei claims to have invented the dish, although it was adapted by a more famous New York chef after visits to Taipei and took off in the ’70s to become one of those ubiquitous menu items you find in nearly every Chinese restaurant, take-out place or bistro.

While many purists decry the dish as inauthentic, one has to wonder what authentic really means in a cuisine that varies greatly from province to province in China and has evolved a great deal over the years. Maybe you won’t find this when you visit China but what matters more is whether or not you yourself like it and crave it. It may not be the kind of Chinese food you get in, say, Shanghai, but if you can’t go to Shanghai and check out the real McCoy you can at least taste what you get in Springfield, Missouri and enjoy it just as much.

REASONS TO GO: Informative. Lively. Doesn’t take itself too seriously.
REASONS TO STAY: Lots and lots of talking heads. WILL make you hungry for Chinese food whether you like it or not.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing that would worry all but the most overly fussy parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally to have been released in early 2014 by Warner Brothers, when Legendary’s distribution contract with that studio expired and a new one signed with Universal, this was one of the movies whose release date was delayed as Universal took over distribution.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: McFarland USA

42


Ebony and Ivory...

Ebony and Ivory…

(2013) Sports Biography (Warner Brothers) Chadwick Boseman, Nicole Beharie, Harrison Ford, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Lucas Black, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Merriman, T.R. Knight, Alan Tudyk,  John C. McGinley, Toby Huss, Max Gail, Brad Beyer, James Pickens Jr., Gino Anthony Pesi, Brett Cullen, Cherise Boothe. Directed by Brian Helgeland 

I think that I’m not alone in admiring Jackie Robinson or considering him a personal hero of mine. Nearly every American is aware that he was the first African-American to play in major league baseball – in fact, many erroneously believe he was the first African-American to play in professional sports – Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall both played in the NFL in 1920 and Robinson made his debut in 1947. But Robinson’s achievement bears closer examination; at the time baseball was America’s pastime. The reaction to a black man in the game most closely identified with the American spirit was not unlike the same reaction one might get if they spit on the tomb of the unknown soldier.

Branch Rickey (Ford), president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had a very good baseball club, having challenged for the pennant for years. Rickey, a devout Methodist, had made the decision to bring a black man into baseball, a decision that horrified his second in command Harold Parrott (Knight) who envisioned the white fans of Brooklyn deserting the team in droves.

However Rickey was not to be denied and so he went on an exhaustive search to find the right man for the job. He considered a number of stars from the Negro Leagues (some of whom, like Roy Campanella, would end up on the team eventually) but eventually settled on Jack Roosevelt Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs. Impressed with his character, Rickey summoned the player to Brooklyn.

Robinson, recently married to college sweetheart Rachel (Beharie), is a bit mystified. He has no idea what Rickey has in mind and it is inferred that the idea that he’d be the one to break the color barrier is the furthest thing from his mind. When Rickey tells him he’s looking for someone to turn the other cheek, Robinson is insulted; are they looking for someone without the guts to fight back? “No,” Rickey thunders, “I’m looking for someone with the guts not to fight back.”

Robinson has more than enough guts and he reports to spring training…in Florida. Naturally the natives don’t take too kindly to an uppity you-know-what playing a white man’s game – in Sanford, the sheriff threatens to shut down the game if Robinson plays. His manager, Clay Hopper (Cullen) is read the riot act by Rickey. Eventually, Robinson makes the minor league Montreal Royals, one step away from the big leagues. He spends the season there.

In 1947, Robinson attends training camp – this time in Panama – with the Dodgers and the team is fully aware that Robinson, who’d torn up the International League with Montreal the previous season, is going to be on the opening day roster and on April 15, 1947 Robinson makes history by taking the field at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

It’s an uphill struggle however. His own teammates circulate a petition, asking Rickey to reconsider (manager Leo Durocher (Meloni) essentially tells them that if they don’t like it, they can expect to be traded). Things aren’t helped much when Durocher is suspended for the season and Burt Shotton (Gail), of whom a New York Sportswriter consistently referred to as Kindly Old Burt Shotton (it’s in Roger Kahn’s excellent The Boys of Summer if you want further insight to this story), is hired in his place.

On the field, Robinson gets it from all sides – the fans, the players, even the managers, particularly Ben Chapman (Tudyk) of the Philadelphia Phillies whose graphic racial attacks are as reprehensible and as vicious as anything you’re ever likely to hear. Hotels refuse to put the Dodgers up because of Robinson’s presence and yet the man perseveres, refusing to give in, turning the other cheek until both cheeks are bruised.

The question to ask here is whether or not the movie tells Robinson’s story properly and I’m of two minds of that here. I think it does a really good job in establishing his relationships with Rickey and Rachel, as well with sportswriter Wendell Smith (Holland) who is hired more or less to be Robinson’s assistant – picking him up and driving him around, arranging for lodging with black politicians when the white hotels won’t admit him, essentially serving as friend and confidante. He also gives Robinson perspective from time to time which proves valuable.

A Jackie Robinson biography had been in the works years ago, with Spike Lee and Denzel Washington attached. Sadly, it never came to pass and sadder still, part of the reason why was studio reluctance to do a movie about Robinson. However, it is a hopeful sign that Warner Brothers agreed not only to do the film, but allow an unknown to be cast in the lead.

Boseman has a relaxed, easy presence that is fiery in places, tender in others. He has the potential to be a star, not only because he captures some of the personality of Robinson but clearly fleshes out the legend some. Unfortunately, the writers really didn’t give him a lot to work with in terms of defining who Robinson was beyond the diamond. That might not be entirely their fault – Robinson was an intensely private man who tended to keep most of his thoughts and feelings to himself. However, Rachel is still alive as are two of his three children and perhaps some contact with them might have fleshed out Robinson’s profile a bit further, although it’s possible they would have preferred to keep what the ballplayer wanted kept private during his lifetime the same way afterwards.

Beharie is also lustrous here and shows signs of being an excellent leading lady. I hope this role gets her some further roles in big films – she has the beauty and the charisma to carry them. I really liked her as Rachel, although again we fail to see the extent of the support she gave Jackie which was considerable by all accounts.

Ford gives one of the most memorable performances of his career, playing Rickey note-perfect as a Bible-thumping curmudgeon on the outside with the kind of heart of gold on the inside that the real Rickey rarely revealed to the public. There’s a really nice scene in a locker room after Jackie is spiked and is being stitched up when he asks Rickey why he did what he did and finally Rickey comes clean with him. It’s the kind of scene that shows up on Oscar telecasts.

I liked this movie a lot, but could have liked it more with a little less baseball, a little more character and maybe a little more time overall with Jackie off the field. Even so, this is an impressive film which I can pretty much recommend without hesitation. As cultural icons go, Robinson has left a towering legacy. That legacy is deserving of a movie that reflects that and while I’m not sure 42 gives it what it deserves, it at least makes a fine attempt in the meantime.

REASONS TO GO: Gives you a sense of what he endured. Ford does some of his best work ever.

REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t give you a sense of who Jackie Robinson was other than what you can deduce from the history books.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some pretty bad language including liberal use of the “N” word (which you have to have if you’re doing a bio on Robinson since he heard it more than his share) and some thematic elements that might be disturbing to young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time in his career Harrison Ford has portrayed a real person.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100; positive reviews overall for this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A League of Their Own

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The ABCs of Death

Lakeview Terrace


Lakeview Terrace

If I had Samuel L. Jackson glaring at me this way, I think I'd run.

(Screen Gems) Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington, Regine Nehy, Jaishon Fisher, Ron Glass, Justin Chambers, Jay Hernandez. Directed by Neil LaBute

Moving into a new neighborhood is always stressful. One hopes that they have nice neighbors, or at least neighbors who will leave you the heck alone. That isn’t always what you get, however.

Chris (Wilson) and Lisa (Washington) Mattson have moved into a new house in an affluent neighborhood on a cul-de-sac called Lakeview Terrace. They are an interracial couple; Chris is white, his wife African-American. That shouldn’t attract much attention in this day and age.

Except it does, particularly from their next door neighbor Abel Turner (Jackson) who disapproves of their relationship. The fact that the two are so obviously affectionate with each other, particularly in front of his children Marcus (Fisher) and Celia (Nehy) further bothers him. He begins to create little annoyances, bent on making their stay in the neighborhood uncomfortable.

For the most part, the couple tries to ignore the pettiness going on but Chris’ masculine pride gets in the way and the incidents begin to escalate. The fact that Abel is a police officer makes going to the authorities nearly impossible. Further adding to the tension is a wildfire burning in the Los Angeles hills near their neighborhood which threatens to burn out of control, much as the situation between Chris and Abel is getting.

Director LaBute is also a noted playwright along with being a film director with some pretty fine films to his credit (In the Company of Men and Nurse Betty among them). He specializes in depicting situations designed to make the audience uncomfortable, something I like to applaud. When we are made uncomfortable, we have a tendency to examine our feelings in order to determine what about the situation makes us uncomfortable. In turn, we begin to learn a little bit about ourselves.

None of the lead characters are especially likable and that’s the way LaBute likes it. Abel, for example, isn’t a cut and dried villain. There are times we feel sympathy for the man, but at the end of the day he is a racist, pure and simple, regardless of the things that got him there. Jackson is a superb actor and only someone of his caliber could make an audience be sympathetic for a character who in lesser hands would be simply the villain.

He has a fine actor to work off of in Patrick Wilson. Wilson’s Chris is a liberal on the outside but is goaded into playing Abel’s game, which leads to friction with Lisa. Lisa’s father (Glass) puts further strain on the relationship with his own disapproval of the relationship, asking Chris “Are you planning to have children with my daughter” in a tone that makes no mistake that he hopes the answer will be “no.”

Interracial relationships are far more common in the 21st century than they were in the last and it is us older folks who seem to have the most problems with it. It is nice to see a movie that treats these relationships with such candor, neither taking for granted that the relationship is acceptable nor ignoring the difficulties that come with a mixed marriage, to use an archaic term. That it’s still an issue is actually a little bit depressing.

Still, the movie works as a thriller for the most part, other than the ending which sinks into a bit of Hollywood cliché territory. The chance to see Samuel L. Jackson at the top of his game is worth renting this to begin with; to allow the issues that the movie raises percolate in one’s head after the fact is priceless.

WHY RENT THIS: Samuel L. Jackson is da mutha effin’ bomb. Interracial relationships are explored with more candor than is usual for non-indie films.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending descends into the bubbling cauldron of Hollywood cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: Foul language abounds; there’s also some violence, sexuality and drug use. While it’s only rated PG-13, sensitive souls might find this a bit rough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the area in Los Angeles where Rodney King was beaten is also called Lakeview Terrace. This is referenced by the use of his “Can’t we all just get along” line.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Baader Meinhof Complex