Lion

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2016

See-Saw Films/Screen Australia/Aquarius Films/Screen Australia/Sunstar Entertainment/Narrative Capital/The Weinstein Company

Directed by Garth Davis

Produced by Iain Canning/Angie Fielder/Emile Sherman

Screenplay by Luke Davies

Based on “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose

There are a number of movies that I’m glad I saw mainly because of the sheer emotional wallop they deliver. “Passion of The Christ” “Requiem For A Dream” “The Panic In Needle Park” and “Hard Candy” are the ones that pop into my mind right away. I recommend those movies because they are exceptional movies that reach right into your guts and give ’em a really good twisting. But I wouldn’t want to watch them a second time and I probably never will. I can add LION to that list. It’s an extremely well-made movie with solid acting from the cast and it does the same thing to me that most movies about India do to me: it makes me want to jump on a plane and go there because it’s a breathtakingly beautiful country.

But it’s also a country of intense despair and unrelenting poverty. And the situation the main character Saroo finds himself in is heartrendingly unhappy. It’s bad enough to make Charles Dickens weep and we all know what changes he put his characters through.

Five year old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) live in the town of Khandwa with their mother and sister, eking out a living as best they can. They’re so poor that church mice live better than they do but they’re happy and full of love for each other. One night Guddu gets up to leave, intending to catch the train to the next town over looking for work. Saroo insists on coming with him. The brothers end up on a train platform where Guddu leaves an exhausted Saroo who just wants to sleep. Guddu tells Saroo that he will be back and Saroo is to wait for him.

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Saroo wakes up on a deserted platform. He goes in search of his brother and ends up trapped on another train that due to mechanical malfunction is being taken out of service and being returned to it’s point of origin: Calcutta. Saroo is stuck on the train for three days and nights and once he gets to Calcutta and finally gets off the train he is in an unfamiliar city where he cannot even ask for help since he does not speak the Bengali language. Saroo spends a couple of months living on the street, stealing food where he can find it and constantly on the move, evading wolfpacks of men who snatch homeless children off the street and take them away for purposes it is best that we not imagine.

Eventually Saroo is taken to an orphanage and after three months is told that since no one has claimed him, he is to be sent to Australia where he is to be adopted by Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) There’s more than a strong hint that the orphanage really didn’t look all that hard to find Saroo’s mother and that some money may have changed hands in the adoption process but then again, I’m a suspicious so-and-so.

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When we pick up on Saroo he’s grown into Dev Patel who you may remember from “Slumdog Millionaire” and the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” movies. He’s got a sweet girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and is studying hotel management (which considering his role in the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” movies gave me a good laugh) and life is good. He is troubled by his inability to help Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) another Indian boy adopted by the Brierley who has not adopted as well to the Australian way of life as Saroo has. But soon Saroo will need help of his own. During a dinner party with Indian friends, the food triggers long suppressed memories of his life back in Khandwa with his brother, mother and sister. The emotions accompanying the memories are so overwhelming that Saroo drops everything, including his new job and his relationship with his girlfriend Lucy and his parents as he begins an obsessive search for his biological family, trying to find the town using maps and Google Earth.

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Like I indicated earlier, this isn’t exactly a fun date night at the movies kind of flick. The first half with the young Saroo living on the streets is especially harrowing and Sunny Pawar is totally believable. He’s plucky enough to survive on his own but his loneliness manifests itself through not only his facial expressions but his body language. It’s quite a piece of acting. The scenes between him and Abhishek Bharate playing his older brother are especially good. Sunny Pawar easily walks off with the movie’s MVP award.

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The ending of LION is one that I know is supposed to be uplifting and give us A Moment but it left me feeling sad and depressed for a number of reasons I can’t give away here because if I do…well, there goes the movie for you. Suffice it to say that I was not uplifted. I grieved for years wasted and lives lost and leave it at that.

118 Minutes

PG-13

Hidden Figures

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2016

Fox 2000 Pictures/Chernin Entertainment/TSG Entertainment/20th Century Fox

Directed by Theodore Melfi

Produced by Donna Gigliotto/Peter Chernin/Pharrell Williams/Jenno Topping/Theodore Melfi

Screenplay by Alison Schroeder/Theodore Melfi

Based on “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly

There are two stories of heroism running side-by-side in HIDDEN FIGURES. There’s the one we all know because it’s been so documented, told and re-told in so many ways (most memorably in 1983’s “The Right Stuff”) that it has become part of American legend. It’s the story of the 1960’s space race between America and Russia as NASA struggled to put a man in a spacecraft into orbit with the eventual goal of putting an American man on the moon before Russia.

Then there’s the other story that I myself had never heard of before in any way shape or form and I am just grateful that this story has at last been told. Because it’s just as much a heroic tale as that of those Project Mercury astronauts. In the 1960s, NASA did not as yet have electronic computers so they had to rely on women with extraordinary mathematical skills to calculate the data needed. These women were actually called “computers” and they were African-American.

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In 1962 the American space program is in trouble. Sputnik 1 has been successfully launched and is merrily orbiting the Earth. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is the director of the Space Task Group, the team primarily in charge of getting astronauts up into space. Hopefully without the rockets blowing up on the launch pad. Harrison is under a lot of pressure to get America into the space race in a big way and he needs someone who can do analytic geometry, do it quickly and do it right. The acting supervisor of the Colored Computers Group Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) says that there’s only one woman for the job; Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) who as a child was a mathematical prodigy, beginning college at the age of 15.

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Mathematical genius or not, Katherine is still a black woman in the Jim Crow South and as such is still looked at as being just that: a black woman. No more and no less. She can’t even drink coffee from the same pot as her co-workers and has to walk/run half a mile back to the building where she used to work to relieve herself as the building housing the Space Task group has no Colored restroom. Not to mention the harassment she has to deal with from her immediate supervisor Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who gives her incomplete data, saying that she does not have the proper security clearances but yet he still expects her to make sense out of it and turn in accurate calculations.

Meanwhile, Dorothy engages in a battle of wills with her supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) who not only refuses to promote Dorothy but actively looks forward to the day when the technicians from IBM will finish installing an IBM 7090 that will replace Dorothy and her girls. But Dorothy has a trick up her sleeve: she’ll teach herself how to program the 7090. Their friend Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) who is working on the space capsule itself correctly identifies a flaw in the heat shield which impresses her boss, Dr. Zielinski (Oleg Krupa) to the point that he demands she go to school at night to get an engineering degree so that she’ll be fully qualified to work on the project. Problem is that engineering schools are segregated. But every problem has a solution and Mary’s is that she will go to court and petition for her right to go to school.

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The three stories of how these women work together and separately to accomplish their goals, achieve their dreams and oh, yes…help put American astronauts into space is an incredibly fascinating one told with an astounding amount of heart. And as much as I cannot stand anything having to do with math, if you had told me I’d be on the edge of my seat worrying about the fate of mathematicians I’d have thought you had lost your mind. But thanks to exceptionally strong acting and solid directing, HIDDEN FIGURES does turn out to be quite suspenseful at times, even though we all know that the space program was eventually a success. But this isn’t that kind of movie. It’s the revealing of a secret part of what up until now I had always thought was one of the most well documented periods of American history.

The cast is top notch. Kevin Costner recognizes that he’s got a supporting role here and so stays in his place, only taking center stage in one or two pivotal scenes but then quietly stepping back to let the real stars of the movie continue to do their thing. A couple of people I know upon hearing that Taraji P. Henson was one of those stars said to me; “You mean Cookie from ‘Empire?’ Can she act?” Which told me that they didn’t know a thing about her because Taraji P. Henson demonstrated years ago that she can act very well indeed. My wife Patricia pointed out something to me that I didn’t notice but upon reflection of certain scenes I can see exactly what she’s talking about. When you see the movie (and you will see it) notice how skillfully Taraji uses her glasses as a prop to enhance, disguise, amplify and demonstrate her emotional moods. And we all know Octavia Spencer turns in Academy Award performances like she invented them so there’s no reason to even go there. But I will say look for one pivotal scene she’s in which I’m convinced is a homage to a very famous scene in “The Right Stuff.” And as in his TV sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” Jim Parsons plays a brilliant manchild who’s a dick. But this one is way meaner in spirit than Sheldon Cooper. It’s a nice change of pace for him. Kirsten Dunst really surprised me in this one and she makes a fine adversary for Octavia Spencer to spar with.

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But it’s Janelle Monae who walks off with the MVP title for this movie. She was clearly born to be an actress and she never steps one foot wrong the entire running time of the movie, easily holding her own with her far more experienced co-stars. She’s a joy to watch anytime she’s onscreen, the rapport between her, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson genuine and uplifting. I don’t say this very often about a movie but I’m pleased and proud to be able to say this about HIDDEN FIGURES: everything you’ve heard about it is true and if you haven’t seen it yet, please do so at your earliest opportunity.

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Rated PG

127 Minutes

The Right Stuff

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1983

The Ladd Company/Warner Bros.

Directed by and Screenplay by Philip Kaufman

Produced by Irwin Winkler/Robert Chartoff\

Based on “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe

Music by Bill Conti

Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel

One of the reasons why THE RIGHT STUFF stands out in my memory is because I saw it during its original theatrical run in the theater. And when the end credits played, a good 75% of the sold out audience I saw it with gave it a standing ovation. And I was right with them. I’ve heard felgercarb from modern day “movie fans” who are so very worldly and sophisticated and think it’s oh so very silly to applaud a movie. What’s the point? they say. The filmmakers can’t hear your applause. But in the case of THE RIGHT STUFF that isn’t the point. That audience and I stood and applauded because we’d just seen a three-hour epic about heroism done with style, respect, humor and grandeur. And we had to show our appreciation for how the movie made us felt. And the bottom line is that it made us all feel damn good. Was a lot of the movie made up? Sure it was. THE RIGHT STUFF is a great example of that magnificent line from “The Legend of Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

I say that to let you know right up front that there’s a lot of legend in THE RIGHT STUFF. Yes, it’s based on historical events involving real people but the filmmakers didn’t let them get in the way of telling a good story. Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) didn’t fly the X-1 on a whim as the movie would lead you to to believe but damn if it doesn’t make for a great scene. Especially when he breaks a couple of ribs chasing his wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey) on horseback in the desert surrounding the future Edwards Air Force Base and falls off his horse and still gets in the X-1 the next day to break the sound barrier.

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And it’s fun to see the friendly rivalry between Yeager and Scott Crossfield as they break each others speed records repeatedly. This is while hungry young pilots such as Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (Dennis Quaid) Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward) and Donald “Deke” Slayton (Scott Paulin) are pouring into the base, looking to make their mark and prove they have “The Right Stuff.” Okay, maybe some of this is made up but if you want the facts, go look them up for yourself. We got these things called libraries. You might have heard of them. Make use of them.

But exactly what IS “The Right Stuff”? nobody ever says. It’s one of those grand and glorious Man Things That Cannot Be Given A Name. Chuck Yeager doubtless has it. In fact, he may have it more than anybody else even though he is deemed not worthy to be invited to join the space program. In one of the movie’s best scenes Gus Grissom is being ridiculed by the media and fellow pilots for his insistence that the explosive bolts on the hatch of his capsule exploded on their own during splashdown. The common consensus is that he panicked. But Yeager comes to Grissom’s defense;” You think a monkey knows he’s sittin’ on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys they know that, see? Well, I’ll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that’s on TV. Ol’ Gus, he did all right.” Now, maybe Chuck Yeager said that or maybe he didn’t. But it matters in the context of the movie and the story that the movie is telling and that’s enough.

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The bulk of the movie is taken up with the 1960s Space Race, accelerated by the Russians launching Sputnik in 1957. NASA is tasked with putting an American in space and that initiates a near hysterical search for astronauts. Ironically, pilots like Yeager are excluded because he doesn’t “fit the profile” but after extraordinary grueling physical and mental tests, The Mercury Seven astronauts are chosen; Cooper, Grissom and Slayton along with John Glenn (Ed Harris) Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) Walter “Wally” Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Charles Frank (Scott Carpenter). But even though they are trained to be pilots, the engineers of the project (and it’s very clear that the majority of these engineers used to work for the Third Reich in WWII) see them as nothing more than passengers. You add to this is extensive publicity machine surrounding these proceedings and you’ve a situation as ripe for comedy as it is for drama.

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And one of the thing that takes people by surprise about THE RIGHT STUFF when they see it for the first time is that is a very funny movie. In fact, at times, it almost plays like a comedy, especially where Dennis Quaid is concerned. Those of you who have seen the movie know what I mean. But just about everybody gets their chance to be funny, even when they’re not being funny. If you know what I mean. Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum get a lot of laughs out their bit as a pair of recruiters looking for candidates for the fledgling NASA program. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the cast don’t get their funny moments as well.

This movie may have just have the greatest cast of talent on screen since “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” Here we go: Fred Ward. Dennis Quaid. Scott Glenn. Ed Harris. Sam Shepard. Lance Henriksen. Scott Paulin. Barbara Hershey. Veronica Cartwright. Harry Shearer. Jeff Goldblum. Pamela Reed. Charles Frank. Donald Moffat. Scott Wilson. Kathy Baker. Royal Dano. John P. Ryan. William Russ. John Dehner. And Chuck Yeager himself. He shows up as the bartender at Pancho’s, the joint where all the pilots hang out. It’s an utterly extraordinary cast and what’s even more extraordinary is that the script and the director gives them all a chance to shine without detracting from the overall story the movie is telling.

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And the musical score by Bill Conti is absolutely magnificent. It won the Academy Award that year for Best Original Score and rightfully so. A large part of the reason why THE RIGHT STUFF is still so highly regarded is because of that heroically soaring score. The special effects are also worthy of note because they’re practical effects, done with models. I don’t have anything against CGI and fully understand that a lot of my favorite movies of recent years couldn’t be done without them. But practical effects have a weight and realism that can’t be duplicated. When Chuck Yeager is in that X-1 and says that it’s still going up like a bat outta hell, we believe him.

Chances are that most of you reading this have already seen THE RIGHT STUFF and agree with me. But for those you who haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and check it out at your earliest opportunity. THE RIGHT STUFF is one of the finest American movies ever made, period. And it’s a whole lot of fun to watch as well. Enjoy.

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192 Minutes

Rated PG

 

 

 

 

 

 

Valley Of The Dolls

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1967

20th Century Fox

Directed by Mark Robson

Produced by David Weisbart

Screenplay by Helen Deutsch/Dorothy Kingsley/Harlan Ellison (uncredited)

Based on the novel “Valley of The Dolls” by Jacqueline Susann

Music by John Williams

Songs by Andre Previn & Dory Previn

People always give me The Look when during a discussion about movies I mention that VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is one of my favorites. You know The Look. It’s the one somebody gives you when they don’t know if they should pity you or laugh at you. Usually they’ll follow up The Look with something like; “But…isn’t that a bad movie?” Well, of course it’s a bad movie. In fact, it’s trash. But it’s a hell of a good bad movie. Some of you reading this review are now nodding your head in agreement. There is entertainment value to be derived from a movie that is total trash when it’s done with enthusiasm, talent and everybody involved throws themselves into the material with total abandon. Because they know the material is trash. That doesn’t mean they can’t have fun making the movie and as a result, we have fun watching it.

And I recommend VALLEY OF THE DOLLS not only as great trash entertainment but as a cultural artifact. When it was made back in the 1960s, the Soap Opera dominated daytime television and make no mistake; VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is nothing more than a two hour Soap Opera. Our three female leads go through success, failure, romance, infidelity, drug addiction, alcoholism, insanity, abortion, medical and emotional issues and true to The Rule of Three, one dies, one goes insane and one is left alive to tell the tale.

Based on the novel by Jacqueline Susann which probably is the greatest pop culture novel ever written it tells the story of three women who pursue fame and fortune in the entertainment field:

Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) is a pint-size earthquake of seemingly limitless talent. Put her on a stage and have an audience in front of her and there’s nothing she can’t do. She quickly makes an enemy of fading Broadway star Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) who quickly assesses that Neely’s talent can soon make her obsolete.

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Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins) is a naive New Englander who comes to New York to gain experience of the world before settling down to married life. She gets a secretarial job with a theatrical agency and is soon having a romance with Lyon Burke (Paul Burke) one of the owners/partners of the agency.

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Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) is an Amazonian blonde of extraordinary beauty and a killer body. While she aspires to be an actress she is well aware she has limited talent and that she is only valued for her amazing physical beauty.

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Neely, Anne and Jennifer become good friends as they navigate the ups and downs of their chosen profession. As they all move up the ladder to success, the stress of their lives compound and they all cope with them in various ways: sex, alcohol and ‘dolls’. Uppers. Downers. Pills that is. Dolls to get you up in the morning. Dolls to keep you going through the day. Dolls to put you to sleep at night. And then you get up again the next day and the whole thing just keeps going and going and going.

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At its core, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is a Be Careful Of What You Wish For fairy tale for grown-ups. The three women think they know what the want out of life and go after it but once they have it they’re profoundly unhappy and dream of a simpler life where they can find true love and happiness. But for two of them they’re on a downward elevator to despair, madness and death with no Up button to press.

But enough of the doom and gloom. VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is indeed a lot of fun to watch simply as a cultural artifact of a style of movie and movie making that isn’t done anymore. Patty Duke and Sharon Tate share the MVP honors for this one. You watch Sharon Tate in this one and I defy you not to have a twinge of sadness for what might have been. I’ve always maintained that had she lived, Sharon Tate could very well have been like Jessica Lange who nobody took seriously as an actress when she first started out. There’s a real poignancy and pathos to Tate’s performance here and out of all the three lead characters, hers was the one I really felt for.

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Patty Duke is obviously having a ball playing Neely O’Hara who starts out as a truly sweet, talented kid full of hopes and dreams and transforms into an egotistical monster. Barbara Parkins (who also starred in the primetime Soap Opera “Peyton Place”) is a gorgeous woman but for my taste is bland and flat. She’s not very emotional in her dramatic scenes and it’s difficult for me to believe she can inspire any man to fall in love with her.

Not that the men in this movie come off as shining examples of manhood either. Most of them are in this movie simply as background. They only have one purpose far as I could tell; to keep the story moving along. But that’s okay because this movie is about the women; their dreams, their ambitions, their careers. The movie firmly keeps the focus on them where it’s supposed to be.

So should you see VALLEY OF THE DOLLS? Yes. It’s Great Good Trash that should be watched and enjoyed in that spirit. It’s the great-grandmother of “Showgirls” and in fact, the two of them would make a great Saturday night double feature with friends, pizza and drinks. Enjoy.

PG-13

123 Minutes

The African Doctor

 

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2016

TFI Films Production/Mars Films

Directed by Julien Rambaldi

Produced by Pauline Duhault/Olivier Delbosc/Marc Meissonier

Screenplay by Julien Rambaldi/Kamini/Benoit Graffin

I think that it’s more than safe to say that 2016 has been one hell of a year. It’s a year that I have no doubt will go down in history. Most of you reading this will one day be in your anti-gravity rocking chair and via your holographic transmission module implant will tell your great-great grandchildren how you survived 2016.

It’s been a year of disappointments. Great disappointments. Even with movies. 2016 has been one of the most dismal and boring movie years that I can recall in recent memory. For every movie I saw in the theater I liked I saw two that bored me. This is worse than me hating it. See, even if I hate a movie it at least aroused and sparked some kind of emotion in me. I’d rather see a movie I hate than one that bores me because then I truly feel I’ve wasted my time. Because the movie made me feel nothing. And that to me is a sin.

Thank Crom for Netflix. Because most of the best movies I’ve seen and enjoyed in 2016 have been on Netflix. Some of you reading this I’ve spoken to privately via Skype and IM (you know who you are) and you’ve bellyached to me that there’s nothing to watch on Netflix. That it’s boring. And the only reason you have it is so that you can endlessly rewatch “Firefly” or “Breaking Bad.” If that’s the case, why not just go buy the complete series on DVD/Blu-Ray and save the bandwidth for those willing to take a chance on movies such as THE AFRICAN DOCTOR. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and that a movie with this much heart, warmth and charm isn’t more well known truly is criminal.

Seyolo Zantoko (Marc Zinga) is a Kinshasa native who studies medicine in 1975 France and gets his degree there. Although he is offered an extremely cushy job as personal physician to the president via his cousin, Seyolo fears that he will fall victim to the same political corruption that has infected most of the government. Seeking to secure a French education for his children, Seyolo accepts a position as physician to the rural provincial town of Marly-Gomont.  His son Kamini (Bayron Lebli) and his daughter Sivi (Medina Diarra) are somewhat skeptical about moving away from their friends and Sivi really doesn’t want to leave her soccer team. But Seyolo’s wife Anne (Aissa Maiga) is ecstatic about moving to France and Paris. You see, when Seyolo told her that they were moving to “a town north of Paris” all she heard was “Paris.”

At this point of this humble review, both husbands and wives reading this are nodding, I’m sure. We have all been there. Miscommunication is at the heart of both comedy and conflict in marriage and we see plenty of that as as the Zantoko family struggle to adapt to their new environment. None of the inhabitants of Marly-Gomont have ever seen an actual, real life, breathing black person and Seyolo is the only one in the family who has ever lived abroad. The Zantoko children are the only black kids in the school and are verbally abused by their classmates. Anne is shunned by the other wives and those in the village who are ill would rather make the trip to the other town over to be treated by the white doctor there.

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But Seyolo is determined to win the villagers of Marly-Gomont over and become a true member of the community. Seyolo’s change is so subtle in this movie it sneaks up on you and it’s a testament to the acting talent of Marc Zinga that when we realize the change, it’s just as much a surprise for us as it is for his family. Seyolo starts off as seeing his appointment to this hick town as simply a way for his children to get free quality education and for him to gain French citizenship. But he truly becomes caught up in the lives of the villagers and honestly has a desire to become their doctor and look after their health.

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Anne is a little harder to win over, though. Aissa Maiga walks away with the MVP trophy for this movie. First off, when you watch this movie I defy you to be able to look at anybody else except her when Aissa Maiga shares the screen with them. She is Stunning. There is simply no other way to describe it. It also helps that she is equally adept at drama as she is at comedy. She gets a lot of the laughs in this movie as well as a lot of the dramatic scenes and it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed watching an actress I was not familiar with on screen as much as I enjoyed watching her. She deserves to have a bigger career. She’s that good.

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And in fact, the depiction of a marriage between a black man and black woman is one of the best in a movie that I’ve seen in a while in a movie and it’s one of the reasons I highly recommend THE AFRICAN DOCTOR. Seyolo and Anne both want the best for their children and for each other. That’s the driving force they both can agree on. But how to get there…well, that’s another story. Seyolo and Anne both make mistakes and miscommunicate. But they have an underlying layer of friendship and respect that supports their love that is truly sweet to see in the quiet moments when they sit down and talk about the situation they’re in and how they’re going to resolve it.

But lest you think this movie is a downer…not so, my friends. THE AFRICAN DOCTOR is very much a comedy as well as a drama and when it’s funny, it pays off. You see, Seyolo and Anne’s families find out where Marley-Gomont is and decide to visit and…well…you can guess the rest. The scene where the Africans attend Christmas Mass and sing “Silent Night” African style is a showstopper in that it’s both totally hilarious (keep an eye on the organ player) and also spiritually uplifting. And the eventual resolution of the Zantokos staying in the village of Marley-Gomont hinging on a soccer game…well, if it doesn’t leave you with a smile on your face then I got nothing for you.

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In fact, the whole of THE AFRICAN DOCTOR is wonderful in that it’s a movie that can make you believe in the best of humanity. And I know a lot of you reading this review don’t believe in that (again, you know who you are) You like your entertainment to be dark, depressing and reinforcing your belief that the world is hateful, people are no good and all our political institutions are trying to kill us. There is no God and there is no way to get out of life except to die.

Take two viewings of THE AFRICAN DOCTOR and call me in the morning.

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96 Minutes

 

 

 

The Birth of A Nation

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2016

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Screenplay by and Directed by Nate Parker

Based on a story by Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin

Produced by Nate Parker/Kevin Turen/Jason Michael Berman/Aaron L. Gilbert/Preston L. Holmes

“Aren’t you tired of slave movies?” “Why can’t we make anything else except slave movies?” “But I don’t want to see another slave movie.” “When I go to the movies I just want to turn my brain off and be entertained.”

That usually was what I heard from some of my friends of color whenever the subject of THE BIRTH OF A NATION came up. Funny how I never hear any of my Jewish friends complaining when a new movie about The Holocaust is in theaters. Slavery is The Holocaust of the African-American in America and me; I don’t think we can talk about it enough. Slavery is woven into the very fabric of America’s DNA and until and unless we all decide to be honest about that fact and deal with it, we’re always going to have racial issues. But, everybody’s movie choices are their own and if you don’t want to see THE BIRTH OF A NATION, God Bless. There’s always another Kevin Hart comedy or all-black remake of a twenty year old Lifetime thriller that is more to your movie-going taste, I’m sure.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that THE BIRTH OF A NATION is more of a biopic than anything else. If for nothing else the movie should be seen if just to get acquainted with Nat Turner if you don’t know much about him and be encouraged to do more reading about him on your own. Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in the summer of 1831 that caused the deaths of nearly three hundred people, black and white. We do get to the viciously bloody rebellion but before that we spend a lot of time with Nat Turner and grow to understand why he led this rebellion as he is a complicated man who lives in several worlds at once.

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There’s the slave world he lives in and his complicated relationship with his white childhood friend Sam Turner (Armie Hammer) who becomes his master when they grow into adults. As a child, Nat learns how to read thanks to the benevolence of Sam’s mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller.) The only book she’ll allow him to read is The Bible and this leads to Nat’s spiritual growth as he becomes a man of faith, living in the world and word of God, preaching to his fellow slaves on his plantation at first. But then, other plantation owners persuade Sam to bring Nat around to preach to their slaves, figuring that he’ll preach them to be good, docile Tobys.

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It has the opposite effect since because he gets to travel to other plantations where the treatment of slaves is truly and horrendously barbaric. Nat’s inner struggle with his faith in the face of such raw brutality and savagery is what sets this movie apart from other movies with similar themes. There’s also a very interesting added layer in that we see slaves who are not that far removed from their African culture and indeed, have integrated tribal rituals and ancestral rites into their Christian beliefs. Nat embodies this as he has visions both Christian and African as if they are both working in his soul. It’s a layer that’s not explored enough for me but it does provide religious fuel for THE BIRTH OF A NATION that powers the engine of Nat Turner’s eventual breaking point and his transformation from man of God to bloody-handed revolutionary leader using The Bible’s words no longer as loving instruments of peace but as swords of war.

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If there’s any flaw with THE BIRTH OF A NATION it’s that we spend too much time with Nat Turner. I was on good footing about his beliefs, his feelings and his thoughts and Nate Parker most likely won’t win an Academy Award for Best Actor but he should. As the adult Nat Turner he’s on screen for most of the movie’s running time to the detriment of the other characters in the movie, I felt. Most of whom we really don’t get to know all that well with the exception of Roger Guenveur Smith as Isiah, a house servant who tries to counsel Nat away from his plan and Jackie Earle Haley as Cobb, a slave catcher. I’ve enjoyed the work of Mr. Smith and Mr. Haley for many years now. They’re actors who guarantee that when they’re on screen, you can’t take your eyes off them. Mark Boone Junior provides what little comedy relief we get in the movie as the boozehound Reverend Walthall. Gabrielle Union is also in there somewhere in what amounts to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo.

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Usually I end my reviews with asking you the question should you see the movie or not. THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a movie I would venture to guess that most of you have made up your mind about already and have either seen it or passed it by so that question is moot. Me, I enjoyed it. Not as light entertainment to waste a couple of hours. I’ve seen enough of those movies this dismal movie year. THE BIRTH OFA NATION is an intelligent, historic biographical drama that I appreciated for not being “just another slave movie.” Yes, the character of Nat Turner is still a controversial one and some may criticize me for characterizing Nat Turner as much an authentic American hero as any other, black or white that you can name. But be mindful that his revolution began with the same spirit as America’s revolution to break from England. He also wanted to be free.

120 Minutes

Rated R

Deepwater Horizon

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2017

Participant Media/DiBonaventura Pictures/Summit Entertainment/Closest to the Hole Productions/Leverage Entertainment

Directed by Peter Berg

Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura/Mark Vahradian/Mark Wahlberg/Stephen Levinson/David Womark

Screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan/Matthew Sand

Story by Matthew Sand

Based on “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours” by David Barstow/David Rohde/Stephanie Saul

If Irwin Allen had made DEEPWATER HORIZON he’d have given us an all-star cast made up up of up and coming young actors, a handful of faces familiar from TV and half a dozen Old Time movie stars who had been big back in the day and now were in the twilight of their careers. He’d have saddled them all with various eccentricities and personal problems that would have padded out the movie’s running time until we got to what we paid our money to see: the actual apocalyptic disaster. We would then have spent the rest of the movie trying to figure out who was going to live and who’s going to die.

What does all this have to do with my review? Not a blessed thing. It’s just that my attention wandered during the first hour or so of the movie and when it does while watching a movie my mind just goes off into wherever. Don’t get me wrong…it’s not that the movie was boring me. But we get a lot of technobabble in that first hour as the crew members of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig talk shop. The crew talks like people who know the subject they’re talking about intimately and so it’s almost like they have their own language. The movie doesn’t slow down to explain to us, the audience what they’re talking about so a lot of what they were discussing went over my head. But that gives the movie an almost documentary feel as it’s as if we’re eavesdropping on private conversations.

And I don’t mean to make light of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster which released millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and where eleven crewmen lost their lives. While drilling, pressure control systems failed, causing an uncontrollable blowout, releasing crude oil that in turned caused an explosion. The explosion was so fierce and so huge it was visible 40 miles away. The movie DEEPWATER HORIZON depicts the events leading up to and causing the explosion and the struggle of the rig’s crew to escape.

We see the disaster through the eyes of Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) who in one of the better scenes early on the movie gives BP executive Don Vidrine (John Malkovich) an impressive list of everything that’s wrong with the rig. Vidrine’s more concerned that they’re behind schedule and over budget. None of which matters to Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell) an Old School oil driller whose mantra is that “BP may own this rig but it belongs to me.” We get some family time with Mike and his wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter before he goes to work on that fateful day. And for all of you who constantly whine about spoilers are advised that 90% of the family time scenes we saw in the trailers are in the movie.

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The best part of the movie happens when things go to hell, the rig blows up and everybody is scrambling around trying to escape. On a purely technical level this movie is astonishing. I would hate to think that director Peter Berg (and where the hell is my sequel to “The Rundown,” dammit?) and his production crew went out and actually built an oil rig just to blow it up for a movie but damn if it doesn’t look like that’s exactly what the maniacs did. DEEPWATER HORIZON is one of those movies I look at and I’m honestly surprised that people weren’t actually killed during filming. There’s fire everywhere, mud spraying from every crack, seam and hole and if it isn’t mud it’s oil. And even the water doesn’t provide safety because it’s covered in flaming oil.

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But still, DEEPWATER HORIZON  is unengaging on the emotional level. I never once forgot I was looking at a movie and found myself admiring it more for the CGI special effects and the stunt work than the performances. This brings me back to Irwin Allen. Hokey as it may have been to assign each character in his disaster movies with an eccentricity or personal problem, it was a form of shorthand to get us to know and sympathize with the characters. There’s only three of them we really get to know here in DEEPWATER HORIZON as the rest of the characters are actually pretty thin and after the explosion, they’re covered in oil and mud and we can’t tell them apart anyway. So when they die the emotional impact is blunted because we’re not sure who it was that just died.

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Kurt Russell walks away with the acting honors in this one as damn well he should because Kurt Russell walks away with the acting honors in any movie he’s in. That’s The Law. Mark Wahlberg and Kate Hudson are likeable enough but they’re not trying very hard to stretch their acting talents here. John Malkovich has been playing sarcastic villains for so long he should have the trademark on it (unless Jeremy Irons has beaten him to it)

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So should you see DEEPWATER HORIZON? It’s a completely undemanding movie that’s perfectly acceptable as a time waster if you find find yourself with a couple of hours to kill. It’s not a bad movie at all. Just one that you don’t have to rush out and see. Go see it for the mind blowing spectacle of the special effects as they’re best appreciated on the big screen. They’re the real stars of this movie.

107 Minutes

PG-13