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

The Last Laugh


Springtime for Hitler.

Springtime for Hitler.

(2016) Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Renee Firestone, Klara Firestone, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, David Steinberg, Larry Charles, Alan Zweibel, Etgar Keret, Carl Reiner, Robert Clary, David Cross, Lisa Lampinelli, Jake Ehrenreich, Zdenka Fantlova, Jeffrey Ross, Susie Essman, Abraham Foxman, Roz Weinman, Malala Sagal. Directed by Ferne Pearlstein

 

Humor is an intensely personal subject; everyone’s idea of what is funny and what is inappropriate varies, sometimes to astonishing degrees. There are always taboo subjects that even comics shy away from, but not all of them. There are subjects that some comics tackle that make even other comics a little bit uncomfortable.

This new documentary by Ferne Pearlstein tackles the interesting subject of what is inappropriate material for comics, concentrating on one of the most horrible events in human history – the Holocaust. More than 70 years have passed since Nazi Germany surrendered but there are plenty who think that jokes about it – even by Jewish comics – are wildly inappropriate. Even Mel Brooks, whose cult classic The Producers dropped jaws when it was released in 1967, says that there is a difference between jokes about the Holocaust and jokes about the Nazis.

Much of the film is devoted to Renee Firestone, an Auschwitz survivor who talks about cabaret shows in the camps used to keep the workers entertained and about the gallows humor employed by the prisoners to help make the days bearable. Other survivors of concentration camps take the opposite tack – the Holocaust was no laughing matter and that the prisoners couldn’t even crack a smile, let alone a joke.

I tend to side with Renee – humor is a mechanism that many humans use to cope with stress and what could be more stressful than living under the constant threat of death? Still, six million Jews and others died in the camps – can we joke about them without trivializing them, or upsetting those who lived in them?

These are the kind of questions that are brought up by various comedians of different eras – old school like Brooks and Carl Reiner, mid-school like David Steinberg and Gilbert Gottfried and more recent vintages like Lisa Lampinelli and David Cross. There are also writers like Alan Zweibel, Malala Sagal and Etgar Keret as well as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League which monitors anti-Semitism in the media. Foxman has some strong opinions as to what is appropriate and what is not, some of which you may agree with or disagree with. I think it’s a telling point that when Foxman pooh-poohs the argument that some comics make that the jokes keep the Holocaust from being forgotten; Sarah Silverman ripostes that if we haven’t forgotten the Holocaust why do genocides continue to this day?

To the filmmaker’s credit, no side seems to be given advantage other than that of the Survivors themselves and particularly Firestone. She is the emotional centerpiece of the film and some of the most moving moments take place as she remembers being separated from her sister whom she never saw again and having to deal with the death of her husband much later in life. Robert Clary, who played a French prisoner of war in the comedy Hogan’s Heroes used his real-life experience in the concentration camps for his character and reveals almost casually of 13 members of his family to be arrested, he was the only one left alive by the end of the war. How does one survive that? Clary doesn’t say and perhaps it’s better that we don’t know.

Towards the end of the film other taboo subjects are tackled such as 9-11 and use of the “N” word but almost in so casual a manner that they might better have not been mentioned at all. Clearly the Holocaust is the big subject here and thus it should have remained. I suspect the filmmakers were aware that there might be some backlash “what, only the Jews have suffered?” which is completely unfair. Nobody’s saying that these other subjects aren’t important and shouldn’t be handled delicately but quite frankly, I think the filmmakers would have been better served sticking to the subject that brought them to the dance, as it were and use it maybe as a gateway to other taboos. Perhaps that was what they were trying to do but quite frankly I think it was a case of trying to do too much. That’s really the only issue I had with the film.

There are, of course, plenty of jokes here and quite a few of them will get you laughing. One of my favorite bits is the “Springtime for Hitler” musical number from the 1967 version of The Producers and the audience reaction shots which might be how some modern audiences in this era of political correctness might react to some of the humor here.

I’m a big believer in freedom of speech and comics, as Mel Brooks himself observes are the conscience of the country. They allow us to look at ourselves and how we react to things that are controversial and uncomfortable; restricting them with political correctness is an absolute abomination and one of the most things that as a liberal I’m most ashamed of my left-leaning friends. It is a healthy thing once in awhile to be outraged.

There is some thought-provoking stuff here and no ready answers. Like everything else, it’s all up to how you perceive things and what affects you. You may be offended by some of the jokes here – or you might laugh your tush off. Is there a line that cannot be crossed? I don’t know; maybe. Should only Jewish comics joke about the Holocaust or gay comics about AIDS or African-American comics about slavery and racism? There are those who think so; I do not. At the end of the day, we are all humans and if we believe that, truly believe that, then all experiences are shared experiences. While the Holocaust was aimed mainly at those of the Jewish faith, we can mourn the loss of these people because we believe we are all brothers and sisters; the loss of even a single Jew makes all of us less.

Sure, that’s a bit simplistic (and sorry this movie review has appeared to become a rant) but the message is that it’s harder to hate someone if you feel connected to them. If there were fewer divisions between us wouldn’t there be fewer reasons to hate? I’m not sure if that’s the message that these comedians are trying to send by joking about the Nazis or even the Holocaust but it’s a message that can be inferred and wouldn’t it be a better world indeed if we all looked at the world that way?

REASONS TO GO: The subject is truly thought-provoking. Some of the jokes are hysterical. There are a few moments that are heart-rending. Brooks is a national treasure.
REASONS TO STAY: Segments on 9-11 and other taboo subjects seemed a bit rushed and didn’t add anything to the film overall.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find plenty of profanity, humor that some might find inappropriate and a few images that are unsettling.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Freedom to Marry

Hidden Figures


When all else fails - dance!

When all else fails – dance!

(2016) Biographical Drama (20th Century Fox) Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, Kurt Krause, Ken Strunk, Lidya Jewett, Donna Biscoe, Ariana Neal, Sanlyya Sidney, Zani Jones Mbayise. Directed by Theodore Melfi

 

Here in the United States we are justifiably proud of our space program. NASA has done some mind-blowing things when you consider our humble beginnings in the Space Race. Back in 1962, it wasn’t certain that we would succeed at all.

Katherine Johnson (Henson) is a math prodigy employed by NASA’s Virginia facility. So are her friends Mary Jackson (Monáe), an engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) who is the de facto supervisor of the computer division – the group of mostly African American women who crunch numbers at the facility. The Space Race is in full bloom and even though NASA has gotten Alan Shepherd into space, they haven’t yet achieved orbit with an astronaut which is also something that the Soviet Union hasn’t been able to do either. John Glenn (Powell) is the candidate for the orbital mission, but the mathematics don’t exist yet to safely get Glenn into orbit and back to Earth again. Time is ticking as NASA has some intense political pressure on them to deliver.

In this office, most of that pressure falls on Jim Harrison (Costner) and his engineers, led by Paul Stafford (Parsons) and things aren’t going well. After some spectacular failures, Harrison needs someone to double check the math of the engineers and the prim and proper supervisor (Dunst) of the computer pool taps Vaughan to suggest someone and she in turn suggests Johnson.

She couldn’t have chosen better. Johnson is a legitimate genius, perhaps more so than the white male engineers and as she begins to clean up their efforts, she shows Harrison that she might be the one to invent a new form of mathematics that will get Glenn into orbit and home again without burning him to a cinder, or sending his spacecraft into a trajectory that takes it beyond where he can get home again.

At the time IBM was building its first supercomputers and installing one in Virginia had turned out to be a much more daunting task than they had at first envisioned. Vaughan, realizing that this computer will put her and the women of the computing division out of a job, learns programming on her own and helps get the system up and running. In the meantime, Jackson – ably assisting chief engineer Karl Zielinski (Krupa) needs to take classes to get her degree so she can progress further. Unfortunately, the only night courses she can take are being taught at a segregated high school which she can’t legally attend.

There are all sorts of petty humiliations associated with the segregation culture of its time; Johnson is forced to take long breaks to scurry the mile and a half to the nearest colored bathroom since she can’t use the whites only bathroom in her own building. She also is not allowed to drink from the same coffeepot as the others. The pressure of the job is keeping her away from her children and her new husband, a dashing Army officer (Ali) much longer than she would like. Will she crack under all this pressure?

One of the things that has irritated some critics about the film is that much of the segregation sequences are essentially manufactured. The bathroom incidents, for example happened to Jackson, not Johnson and while Vaughan became an essential computer programmer for NASA, her role in getting the computer installed was overstated here. However, keep in mind that this is a movie based on the experiences of actual people – it’s not a history lesson per se and is meant to be entertainment.

And as entertainment the film succeeds, largely on the back of the performances of its leads. Spencer has become in short order one of America’s finest actresses bar none; I can’t remember a recent film in which she’s given a subpar performance or failed to elevate. Here she is absolutely mesmerizing whenever she’s on screen; the power of her personality almost overwhelms the others.

Henson has a much more mousy character to portray but she makes her human and vulnerable rather than so smart we cannot relate to her. She is that, but she’s also got a ton of humanity as well – she gets frustrated with her situation but she has a lot of confidence that the future will be a better one. Henson has also climbed to the top echelon of actresses working and while Spencer has gotten more award acclaim, I don’t doubt that Henson is headed in that direction as well as she gets more leading roles on the big screen and the small.

Costner is a reliable performer who is transitioning into a bit of a character actor as well as a leading man still. He knows how to play grouchy with a heart of gold about as well as anybody and Harrison is all of that. Of course, this being a Hollywood production, there are elements of “decent white guy helping the cause of African-American freedom.” It’s a bit condescending but I suppose, forgivable; after all, there were plenty of decent white guys (and gals) who not only supported the civil rights movement but also fought on the front lines of it. Still, Melfi at least has the good sense to make sure the focus is on the trio of ladies where it should be.

The good thing about Hidden Figures is that it educates us about people who have been lost to history but shouldn’t have been and that is invaluable. Nearly as invaluable is that the movie leaves us with a good feeling as we exit the theater (or turn off our home video device when the time comes) and in times like these, it’s certainly about as important.

REASONS TO GO: Fine performances from all three of the ladies include an Oscar-nominated one by Spencer. It’s a really uplifting film – literally.
REASONS TO STAY: Strays quite a bit from the actual history of these extraordinary women.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of mild profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that was used as Dorothy Vaughan’s house has historical significance; the residence, in Atlanta, is where civil rights leaders Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first met.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Right Stuff
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Split

13th


Outside the windows conditions remain murky.

Outside the windows conditions remain murky.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Angela Davis, Cory Booker, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, Ed Koch, Dolores Canales, Khalid Muhammad, Charles B. Rangel, Jelani Cobb, Kyung-Jee Kate Rhee, Nicholas Turner, James Kilgore, Bryan Stevenson, Kevin Gannon, Michael Hough, Ken Thompson, Marc Maurer, Michelle Alexander, Deborah Small, Marie Gottschalk. Directed by Ava DuVernay

 

The 13th Amendment was supposed to have abolished involuntary servitude (i.e. slavery) but it left a very deliberate loophole; convicted criminals could be sentenced to hard labor without remuneration. That has led to the exploitation of African-American males essentially since the Civil War ended.

Ava (Selma) DuVernay’s Netflix documentary is up for an Oscar for Best Documentary feature and it’s easy to see why. This serves as an important historical document on the history of racism right up to present day. Images from the D.W. Griffith master-race-piece Birth of a Nation are cheek by jowl with images of civil rights marchers being beaten and firehosed in the Sixties.

There are a lot of talking heads and oddly DuVernay identifies most but not all of them. Some of them are fairly well known – there’s no mistaking Rep. Charlie Rangel and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and those who watch Real Time with Bill Maher ought to recognize Grover Norquist but some of the speakers here aren’t as well known visually and some information on who is talking and why their opinion should matter would be welcome. I must say it was great seeing Angela Davis, who is currently a professor at UC Santa Cruz. She looks terrific and minus her trademark Afro she looks a lot different but the fire is certainly still there and the intelligence as well. She is one of the most engaging speakers in the film.

The movie shows how the prison system has moved from using convicts for hard labor, helping to rebuild the post Civil War south to the War on Drugs which filled prisons with largely African American males in for minor offenses to help Nixon and his appeal to hard line conservative “Law and Order” voters to today when prisons have been privatized and the despicable ALEC organization which includes several corporate incarceration facility entities among its members has written laws to help increase prison sentences and has led to a prison population that was just under 350,000 in 1970 to the 2.3 million prisoners the United States has behind bars today. As a percentage of our total population, we have more people in prison than almost any nation on Earth by sheer number of the incarcerated I believe we have the greatest number of prisoners of any nation. We’re number one!

The narrative sometimes gets strident and overly dramatic and I can understand the former but a little bit of restraint might have gotten the point across more effectively than the cinematic hysterics DuVernay sometimes indulges in. When you’re preaching to the converted, a little drama doesn’t make a difference but when you’re trying to win hearts and minds it can make things a little more difficult than it needs to be.

Still, even with all that this is a powerful and moving documentary that richly deserves the nomination that it received. I also found it impressive that DuVernay includes the conservative side of things as well which some left-leaning documentarians often fail to do. However, she never loses sight of the fact that she’s giving a voice to a segment of society that hasn’t traditionally had, or at least one that was being heard. If it is occasionally uncomfortable and strident it is forgivable. The point is that we are watching legal, institutionalized slavery going on under our very noses and unless we decide to do something about it as a people it will continue to go on for as long as the powers that be can get away with it.

REASONS TO GO: An important document on the history of racism. An impressive amount of conservative commentary is included. A voice is given to those who generally have to scream in order to be heard.
REASONS TO STAY: The film can be strident and occasionally veers into the overly dramatic. The graphic flashing of the word “criminal” every time the word is mentioned is irksome.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of foul language and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The title comes from the 13th Amendment which prohibits slavery – except in the case of convicted criminals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Not Your Negro
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Underworld: Blood Wars

Front Cover


A handsome, stylish man.

A handsome, stylish man.

(2015) Drama (Strand) Jake Choi, James Chen, Jennifer Neala Page, Elizabeth Sung, Sonia Villani, Ming Lee, Li Jun Li, Rachel Lu, Wayne Chang, Kristen Hung, Scott Chan, Brian Knoebel, Ben Baur, Shenell Edmonds, Benjamin Thys, Tom Ligon, Fenton Li, Julia Sun, Josh Folan, Peter Benson, Hallie Cooper-Novack, Chris Kies, Morgan Wolk, Jack Ferver, John Cramer, Susan O’Connor. Directed by Ray Yeung

 

Culture can be a blessing and a millstone. Not all of us want to be defined by our ethnicity. That also goes for our sexuality, although that is becoming less of a stigma these days. The LGBTQ community has made some big strides in this country over the past few years but sometimes we forget that it isn’t the same situation everywhere.

Ryan (Choi) is a gay Asian man who works as a stylist in the fashion industry in Manhattan. He’s in demand and very good at what he does, but he is tired of being stereotyped for his sexuality and his culture. He wants a certain magazine cover but instead he’s assigned by his overbearing boss (Villani) to work with an emerging Chinese star named Ning (Chen) who is breaking out in the United States and who had specifically requested a Chinese stylist for his important photo shoot he’s getting ready for.

It is not a match made in heaven. Ning is all about his culture while Ryan is trying to distance himself from his Chinese heritage and embrace his American side. For Ning’s part, he is shocked at Ryan’s open homosexuality. It’s simply not an acceptable part of the culture in modern China. The relationship is rocky and nearly gets Ryan fired but eventually the two begin to find some common ground, particularly when Ryan’s parents get involved. And as the two begin to become friendly, an attraction develops as Ning reveals that he is in the closet. Can two people from two disparate cultures make it work?

This is a movie that has admirable ambitions. Not only does it examine a little-discussed subject in film – being gay and Asian – but from two different angles. Bringing the cultural differences into the mix adds a little bit of spice to the lo mein. One of the big positives here is that Yeung has his feet in both communities and brings his own experiences and perspective to the wok. That lends an air of authenticity to the film that money just can’t buy and is a perfect illustration of what is best about indie films.

The movie rests largely on the shoulders of Choi and Chen and the two work really well together. Their initial antagonism leading to romantic feelings feels a bit Hollywood-esque but the two manage to overcome the clichéd nature of the situation and make the relationship feel real. There’s also some great scenes with Ryan’s parents and grandmother.

In a sense although the romance is at the center of the film, it is really Ryan’s story; it measures his growth and revolves around his perspective. We see the events through his eyes, feel his frustrations and his passions. Ryan is so dedicated to assimilating into American culture that he refuses to have romances with Asian men, only Caucasians. It is this cultural denial – not uncommon among second generation immigrants – that I think is the most fascinating part of the story.

I would have liked the romantic part to have been a little more organic but even though it kind of follows a rom-com formula, this is far from typical. And yes, there are comedic elements here, particularly with cultural fish-out-of-water things but I wouldn’t necessarily characterize this as a comedy or even a dramedy. It tackles some serious issues and gives us insights that maybe we wouldn’t come up with on our own, and isn’t that really the best thing a movie can do for us?

REASONS TO GO: Cultural and sexual attitudes are taken on honestly. There’s legitimate chemistry between the leads.
REASONS TO STAY: The romance aspect seems a little cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are complex; there is also brief mild profanity and some conversation that is a little suggestive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leung also runs the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brokeback Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Tenth Man

Cartel Land


Dominion over all he surveys.

Dominion over all he surveys.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Jose Manuel Mireles, Tim “Nailer” Foley, Paco Valencia, Nicolas “El Gordo” Santana, Estanislao Beltran, Janet Fields, Ana Delia Valencia, Maria Imilse. Directed by Matthew Heineman

Florida Film Festival 2015

It is no secret that the drug wars on the Colombian cartels have led to the rise of the equally vicious Mexican cartels. They have become so arrogant and so untouchable in their own country that they have brought their violence and presence into ours. There are those on both sides of the border who would put a stop to them.

In Arizona, former Iraq War veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a group of irregulars in nightly border patrols. Goaded into action when he lost his construction job during the economic collapse of 2008 and then watched as the same companies paid illegal aliens far less under the table for the work he had been doing, Foley’s mission was initially to assist the Border Patrol in rounding up illegals.

That changed when he began to witness firsthand the violence and incursions into U.S. territory of the Cartels. He speaks disparagingly of Mexican illegal aliens and one might guess that he is a racist in an area where that isn’t as uncommon as we might like. Nailer himself claims he’s not a racist, but there is a likelihood that there are those in his group that are; these sorts of vigilante groups tend to attract them. However, the more that his group is observed, they become less intolerant rednecks playing at toy soldier and more men who are frustrated by a situation that is spiraling out of control with the appearance that nothing is being done about it.

Nailer is plain-spoken and a bit rough around the edges but there’s no doubting his patriotism nor his resolve. He’s not out there shooting at anything brown-skinned that moves; he’s looking for scouts for the Cartels with the intention of holding them until the Border Patrol can arrive and arrest them. It is somewhat ingenious that Heineman sets up this segment for the audience to dislike Nailer and his group but eventually sympathize with them, and maybe even respect them the longer the film goes on.

On the other side of the border are the Autodefensas, a group of citizen vigilantes in the Michoacán state of Mexico where the Knights Templar cartel reigns supreme. Sick of their families, neighbors and friends being butchered with impunity as the corrupt police and political arms of the state do nothing to protect them, they form their own paramilitary group led by the charismatic doctor Jose Manuel Mireles. As he goes from town to town, garnering recruits and cleaning out elements of the cartel, he becomes something of a folk hero much like Pancho Villa.

Surrounded by a loyal inner circle, he seems poised to make a real difference in the life of his community but things go terribly, incredibly wrong. Mireles becomes something of a rock star and the fame begins to interfere with his ability to administrate his group. Soon they begin torturing suspected cartel members and when Mireles is shot and steps down to recuperate, it becomes clear that the agenda of the Autodefensas is not what it first appeared to be.

The movie is brilliantly edited, taking the audience places it doesn’t expect to go. It is also beautifully shot, with the desolation of the Altar Valley in Arizona contrasting with the poverty-stricken towns and villages of Michoacán. Likewise, the rough-hewn personality of Nailer contrasts mightily with the charismatic and flamboyant personality of Mireles, whose fall from grace is absolutely heartbreaking.

The movie begins with shots of masked cartel members cooking meth in the desert. One of them, surprisingly articulate, talks about how the recipe was learned from an American father and son, and that he is fully aware that the drugs going into the United States are doing damage there, but he shrugs off any sort of guilt. This is the way it is and he didn’t set things up that way; he’s just playing the cards he was dealt. Later on we return to that scene and the movie is tied together nicely as we learn the identity of the masked man.

The Michoacán portion of the movie with street battles, a more immediate sense of danger and maybe the most emotionally wrenching part of the movie, is far more effective on the surface than the Arizona segments which are less exciting, but the skillful way Heineman edits his film allows Arizona to have an equal amount of power, albeit much more subtle. However, the issue of racism in American border vigilante groups that I brought up earlier in the review really isn’t discussed in much more than an arbitrary fashion; I think the movie would have benefitted from a little more focus on the subject.

Nailer says early on that vigilantes are given a bad name by the press, but he’s not entirely accurate on that score. The fall of the Autodefensas shows why those who take the law into their own hands are liable to create their own laws – which subverts the good work they set out to do. The Arizona group, who changed from a group keeping illegal aliens out and unintentionally became crime fighters assisting the border patrol, show that the opposite can be true as well.

REASONS TO GO: About as intense as it gets. Changes direction unexpectedly. Michoacán segments far more effective than the ones shot in Arizona.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Doesn’t really explore the issue of racism in the Arizona segment.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult language and themes and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Throughout the shoot, Heineman often acted as his own cinematographer and as a result came under fire several times.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocaine Cowboys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrowland

Black or White


Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner discussing race relations would make for an interesting film.

Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner discussing race relations would make for an interesting film.

(2014) Drama (Relativity) Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Bill Burr, Anthony Mackie, Mpho Koaho, Andre Holland, Gillian Jacobs, Jennifer Ehle, Paula Newsome, Indigo, Bertha Bindewald, Joe Chrest, Ireyon Johnson, Janeline Hayes, Lloyd Dillon, Ernest Wells, Angela Jones, David Jensen, John McConnell, Robert Larriviere, Lindsey G. Smith. Directed by Mike Binder

In many ways, race is the central issue for America not only in the 20th century but sadly into the 21st as well. It informs many of the political struggles that have been going on. After all, do you think that there would be quite the push for the strengthening of gun owner rights if there wasn’t a white fear of young black men? While some things are better than they were 50 years ago when Dr. Martin Luther King led a march from Selma to Montgomery in an effort to assert voting rights for the African-American citizens of this country, for the most part things are sadly, drearily, depressingly the same.

Elliot Anderson (Costner) is barely coping with life. His wife (Ehle) has just passed away in an auto accident. He’s lost but he can’t afford to be; he has a granddaughter to raise. Eloise (Estell) entered the world under difficult circumstances; her mom, Elliot’s daughter, died in childbirth and her dad, Reggie Davis (Holland), a raging drug addict, wasn’t fit or interested to be a father. Elliot has a lot of issues with Reggie, blaming him for a lot of things some of them deserved, some not.

Rowena (Spencer) is Reggie’s mom and she’s very sympathetic to Elliot’s plight but in some ways not. She wants to be closer to her granddaughter, understandably and especially now but Elliot is struggling with this. He respects Rowena although he doesn’t really like her much, believing she has a blind spot when it comes to her son. Rowena, frustrated by Elliot’s intransigence, consults her brother Jeremiah Jeffers (Mackie), a high-powered lawyer who sues Elliot for custody of Eloise on Rowena’s behalf.

Eloise is confused by all of this; she loves her grandfather very much but she also loves her Gramma Wee-Wee, as she calls Rowena. However left to her own devices, the seven-year-old would want to stay with the man who’s been around her all her life. Not that anyone’s asking her, of course.

But Rowena has ulterior motives. She sees Eloise as an opportunity to save her son; surely once he is given the chance to be a dad, he’ll step up to the plate. Elliot will do anything to keep this from happening; however, the case is far from open and shut. You see, Elliot has another friend; it’s the bottle and he has climbed into it hard after his wife’s untimely passing.

So with Reggie sniffing around, Elliot getting paranoid and Rowena becoming increasingly unsure that she wants to use Jeremiah’s bulldog tactics which paint Elliot as a racist alcoholic, even if it is true – which it only is half-true. What is going on is a struggle between a man who has lost everything and a desperate mother with a little girl caught in the middle.

This is the type of movie that can be incredibly powerful in the right hands and veteran Mike Binder would appear to be those hands, but frankly he doesn’t pull it off. Instead of making this a powerfully emotional film that acts as a lens on modern race relations, Binder instead goes for the easy answers with an ending that absolutely wipes out any credibility the movie might have had.

Costner was particularly motivated, financing the production himself for the most part. This is a much more layered role for him; he tends to play fairly easy-going guys who have a penchant for doing the right things although often his characters have a checkered past. His immense likability helps make this movie charming, despite the fact that his character isn’t doing a lot of charming things, showing up so blotto that he can barely stand at times and using the N-word when confronting Reggie. He also has a speech during the courtroom proceedings which while I think it gets to the heart of what the movie is trying to get across, damages Elliot’s case significantly.

Elliot sees his wife in (often) alcohol-induced flashbacks and certainly they make it clear that she was his rock, leaving him floundering in her absence. It is telling that we only get to see his wife in flashback; his daughter, with whom he was estranged and seems to be much angrier about, never appears in any sort of flashback. Clearly Elliot hasn’t forgiven her yet.

Fortunately Costner isn’t alone. Spencer has blossomed into one of the most dependable actresses in Hollywood; ever since making her splash in The Help she hasn’t delivered one performance that has been anything less than fantastic. Mackie is also a terrific actor who is terrific here as well. There are a couple of relative newcomers here however who deliver fine performances; comedian Bill Burr who as Elliot’s partner gets a couple of dramatic sequences, and young Jillian Estell who carries herself extremely well for an actress this young. Something has to be done about that hand grenade hair though; it’s distracting.

With an opportunity to make a really important film on race relations, the writers and filmmakers instead go the safe route, substituting cliche for insight. That makes this relatively easy to digest and certainly free of controversy. In this way it doesn’t offend anyone, but the movies that invite the most discussion and in some cases actually make the most difference socially speaking are the ones that are offensive to at least someone. If you’re going to have Kevin Costner utter the “N word” at a young African-American man, you might as well not squander the opportunity by being timid in all other aspects but unfortunately that’s exactly what this movie does.

REASONS TO GO: Costner at his likable best in a more layered role than he usually gets. Spencer, Mackie, Burr and (surprisingly) Estell are all strong support.
REASONS TO STAY: Predictable throughout. The ending is a whopper that really derails the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of drunkenness, intimations of drug use, a fight and some occasional strong language as well as some adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is dedicated to the memory of J.J. Harris, who was Costner’s personal friend and his first manager. Harris passed away in 2013.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kramer vs. Kramer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Strange Magic