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Scroll down or click on the movie title to see its review:
Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out Of Town In America
Crazy Love || Daddy's Girl || DOA: Dead Or Alive
The Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer || Knocked Up
Manufactured Landscapes || Ocean's Thirteen
The Trials Of Darryl Hunt
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Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks
Out Of Town In America
Jaw-Dropping Documentary Revisits America’s Ethnic Cleansing Of Blacks Between Emancipation And Early 20th Century
Have you ever noticed how many 20th Century African-American trailblazers are referred to as the first to achieve this or that feat “since Reconstruction.” For instance, Edward Brooke (R-MA) is known as the first Black elected to the U.S. Senate “since Reconstruction.” Douglas Wilder (D-VA) is celebrated as the first Black to serve as governor of a state, again, “since Reconstruction.”
Why was that “since Reconstruction“ qualifier so frequently attached to modern African-American accomplishments? Simply, because Blacks had briefly made significant inroads after the Civil War, only to have everything taken away in the wake of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. For between the late 1860s and the 1920s, Black people were subjected to a form of ethnic cleansing that Hitler would later use as a precursor for the Holocaust.
The reign of terror which transpired partially helps explain the geographical demographic pattern that left Black people packed into the country’s urban centers. The heartbreaking documentary Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America blows the sheets, pardon the expression, off this long-hidden aspect of U.S. history.
The picture was directed by Marco Williams, an intrepid researcher who has crisscrossed the South and Midwest, often putting himself in harm’s way, to ask the tough questions and to unearth proof of a widespread pattern of purging Blacks from rural communities which persists to this day. Typically, the evictions began with a lynching, followed by a threat being leveled against every remaining African-American in the county at gunpoint. They were forced to flee before sunrise with little more than the clothes on their backs, often abandoning homes, businesses and farms they owned.
Told never to set foot on their own property again, unless they also wanted to be lynched, these refugees left, feeling lucky just to be alive. The expulsions were invariably followed by the adoption of a whites-only residential policy, and in the movie Marco accompanies some still frightened descendants of the disenfranchised back to visit their ancestors’ estates.
We see that many of these counties remain lily-white, such as Forsyth County, Georgia. There, Williams interviews Phil Bettis, an unsympathetic attorney who admits to helping Caucasians take legal title to the lands once owned by Black citizens. “They slept on their rights,” he rationalizes, blaming the victims. Ironically, this same man is the head of the local “Biracial Committee” which is looking into whether the relatives of the banished Blacks ought to be eligible for any reparations. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
They say the South has changed, but you wouldn’t know it from this jaw-dropping shocker you have to see to believe.
Running time: 87 minutes
Studio: Working Films
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Documentary Revisits Curious Case Of Lunatic Lawyer Who Blinded His Mistress
Back in the Fifties, Burt Pugach was an ambulance-chasing attorney who made enough money via shady fee-splitting schemes to open up his own nightclub in Manhattan. He even had plenty left over to lavish a jet set lifestyle on Linda Riss, the attractive receptionist he fell in love with at first sight. Without letting on that he was married, he had swept the impressionable 20 year-old off her feet with private plane rides and by wining and dining her at hot spots like the Copacabana.
But while the 32 year-old adulterer was scheming to take the virginity of his naïve mistress, his poor wife was stuck at home, attending to the needs of their severely retarded daughter, 24/7. When Linda learned that her duplicitous suitor already had a family, she broke off the whirlwind relationship, and began dating available guys her own age.
This didn’t sit well with Burt, who became insanely jealous and started stalking her. He hired thugs to toss rocks through her windows and to beat her up, hoping that she would be frightened into returning to him. However, instead of capitulating, she went down to the 47th Precinct, pleading for police protection. Unfortunately, without proof that her ex was behind the assaults, she was left to fend for herself.
Burt totally went ballistic upon the announcement of Linda’s engagement to a lad named Larry Schwartz. Warning, “If I can’t have her, nobody will,” the lunatic lawyer got a gun and contemplated committing murder. Then, he thought better of it and paid a goon named Al Newkirk and a couple of other brothers from the ‘hood to throw acid in her face. The lye blinded Linda, who told anybody who would listen that Burt had to be behind her disfigurement.
This time, the cops tapped his phone line and heard him hatching a plan to cover his tracks by having a hit man “kill those three niggers.” Needless to say, he was arrested, tried and convicted, and sent up the river to Sing Sing in 1959 to rot behind bars for 30 years. Ordinarily, that would have slammed the door on this shocking tale for the tabloids, except for a bizarre twist following Pugach’s early parole for good behavior.
Over the intervening 16 years he spent incarcerated, Burt’s wife placed their child in a mental institution, sold their house, and skipped town. Linda, meanwhile, never married, having been left by her fiancé, and grew dependent on her mother who was by now in failing health. As a consequence, faster than you can say “Joey Buttafucco and Amy Fisher,” the creepy psycho tracked her down and proposed.
As riveting as a train wreck, Crazy Love is a documentary which recounts all of the above, plus some of the sordid details of the couple’s ensuing, stormy 28-year marriage. Along the way, the picture serves up an array of mind-boggling updates, like the fact that Burt has continued his womanizing ways, even landing back in jail temporarily after one girlfriend accused him of breaking her wrist for dumping him after she became fed-up with his empty promises to leave Linda.
A fascinating flick for anyone looking for a new reason to hate lawyers.
Rating: PG-13 for profanity, sexual references, and mature themes.
Running time: 93 minutes
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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Career Of Laila Ali Chronicled In Warts-And-All Bio-Pic
Don’t think that just because she was born the daughter of a revered icon, that life has been a bed of roses for Laila Ali. While the 5’10”, 175 lb. beauty has followed her father’s footsteps into the ring, she had to overcome his absence, juvenile delinquency, jail and other assorted hardships on her way to being crowned the undefeated women’s boxing champ.
Right off the bat, this revealing documentary informs the audience that while Muhammad Ali might have been the greatest fighter who ever lived, he was definitely not the greatest father. After all, he’s been married four times and had nine children, some from extramarital relationships. And he was married to Laila’s mother, Veronica, for less than ten years.
But that didn’t prevent Laila from emulating him, especially in terms of demonstrating a determination that proves she inherited the heart of a champion. Besides chronicling her rise to the top of her profession, which included 21 knockouts in 24 bouts, this fascinating bio-pic shows her to have a social consciousness. Perhaps because of her own brushes with the law as a troubled teen, she now devotes much of her free time to giving inspirational speeches to at-risk kids.
Given that Laila found widespread fame earlier this year when she finished in third place on Dancing with the Stars, followed by her more recently being named one to People Magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful List for 2007, she appears perfectly poised to leave pugilism behind and to parlay her success into a line of work that won’t involve punching and getting punched.
Can anyone one say, “Hooray for Hollywood!”?
Studio: TV One/Undisputed Cinema
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DOA: Dead Or Alive
Jiggly Babes Kick Butt In Adaptation Of Computer Game
Ordinarily, a compromise of sorts is struck when a computer game is turned into a movie, as most such adaptations fail either to follow the feature film format or to deliver a viable screen version of the joystick experience. Instead, they typically serve up an unsatisfying blend of the genres by trying to cobble a storyline with well-developed characters onto graphic action sequences, which would’ve been better off with plot left as an afterthought.
DOA: Dead or Alive is a refreshing exception to the rule, for it merely pays lip service to plot in favor of eye-popping fight scenes featuring scantily-clad women with gravity-defying boobs performing gravity-defying feats. Like a cross of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Charlie’s Angels, this titillating chopsocky is the brainchild of Hong Kong’s Corey Yuen.
Yuen, ever in demand as a veteran choreographer of martial arts movies, has directed dozens of his own films, plus he’s staged the stunts for dozens more, including such big-budget Hollywood productions as Romeo Must Die, X-Men and Lethal Weapon 4. He’s probably best known for The Transporter, a surprise hit which landed on this critic’s 10 Best List for 2002.
DOA: Dead or Alive revolves around a winner-take-all, anything goes, invitational tournament of gladiators being staged on an exotic island in the middle of nowhere by Dr. Victor Donovan (Eric Roberts), a diabolical creep with a hidden agenda. The grand prize? A cool $10 million.
Although the bulk of the competitors are men, the real stars, here are the four fearless women, Helen (Sarah Carter), Christie (Holly Valance), Tina (Jaime Pressley) and Kasumi (Devon Aoki), at the center of this female-empowerment flick. Prior to their arrival at the main event, each of our curvy heroines enjoys a gratuitous get-acquainted scene.
Get a load of what to expect of this testosterone-sodden teen fantasy. When we first meet Christie, she’s nearly-naked and coming out of a shower when she suddenly finds herself confronted in her hotel room by several cops about some stolen diamonds. No problem. Whipping off the towel to use as a weapon, Christie proceeds to wrestle with them in a manner rather reminiscent of an equally-unforgettable scene from Borat.
Eroticized violence remains the prevailing theme even after the competition starts on the island, such as with Zack (Brian J. White), a hopelessly horny Mr. T wannabe with a Kelly green Mohawk and matching sideburns. He tries every lame pick-up line in the book on Tina, who doesn’t give the jive brother the time of day until they are designated as opponents, at which point she summarily eliminates him from the contest in short order.
Warning: don’t try to follow the plot. Don’t try to make sense of the cartoon physics. Don’t allow yourself to be put off by the cheesy trick photography. Otherwise, you’ll feel betrayed and be bitterly disappointed. The idea here is to sit back and delight in the cinematic equivalent of a fashion runway, which seizes on the flimsiest of excuses to shoot sweaty, two-fisted beauties flying around in lingerie, swimsuits and skin-tight attire from every conceivable angle.
If Corey Yuen believed in truth in advertising, ala Snakes on a Plane, this flick would have a name like Jiggly Babes Kick Butt. The stuff that post-pubescent dreams are made of.
Rating: PG-13 for nudity, sexuality, eroticized violence and pervasive martial arts action.
Running time: 87 minutes
Studio: The Weinstein Company
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The Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
Dull Sequel More Disappointing Than Original
How do you take a team of beloved, comic book crime fighters with cool superhuman powers and turn them into absolute bores by the time they hit the big screen? That’s a question which can best be answered by Tim Story, director of The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, since he’s achieved that improbable feat twice now. For this surprisingly-flat sequel proves to be just as dull as his first adaptation of the Marvel franchise back in 2005.
The quartet, which was ostensibly inspired by the classic Greek elements, air, fire, water and earth, is again led by the elastic Dr. Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), a contortionist who has the ability to stretch, twist and re-shape his body. Then, there’s Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) who can turn herself invisible and also control force fields. Her brother, Johnny (Chris Evans), The Human Torch, can fly and set himself afire. And The Thing (Michael Chiklis) is a rock-like mutant with incredible strength.
At the point of departure, we find Reed and Sue in Manhattan, making last-minute preparations for their impending marriage, blissfully unaware of extraordinary climate changes occurring elsewhere. They’re too distracted by the paparazzi and adoring fans to hear about the fact that it’s snowing on the pyramids in Egypt or that the seas encircling Japan have frozen solid.
Only after weird weather triggers a blackout in New York and ruins the couple’s wedding day, does anybody pause to wonder what’s suddenly causing these atmospheric anomalies. Of course, they soon discover that it isn’t global warming at all, but the work of The Silver Surfer (played by Doug Jones and voiced by Laurence Fishburne). This intergalactic traveler is on a mission to Earth on behalf of Galactus, an evil entity that feeds on life-bearing planets.
The Silver Surfer is a virtually indestructible figure, provided he isn’t separated from his metallic surfboard, which is the source of his cosmic powers. He flies faster than the speed of light and can survive in outer space, so it’s clear that it’s going to take a concerted effort to match wits with and subdue this elusive villain bent on world domination.
Thus, at the suggestion of U.S. Army General Hager (Andre Braugher), the Fantastic Four reluctantly join forces with their recently-revived archenemy, the diabolical Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon). Unfortunately, the tortoise-paced adventure which ensues is a childlike insult to the intelligence which relies on pseudo-scientific claptrap, which probably couldn’t convince a 10-year-old of its merit. Further, despite the flick’s $130 million budget, its CGI-enhanced fight sequences are so tame and underwhelming that the movie was able to get away with a PG rating.
Inexplicably, director Story remains determined to squander screen time on distracting sidebars developing his protagonists’ personal lives, including The Thing’s continuing relationship with his blind girlfriend (Kerry Washington) and Johnny’s being a ladies man. Of course, we have Sue and Reed’s nuptials, at which Fantastic Four creator Stan Lee makes a cameo appearance as a wedding crasher.
That clever aside can’t save Fantastic Four 2 which amounts to the worst comic book adaptation since… well, since Fantastic Four 1. An unimaginative disaster that takes forever to end, as if the celluloid is being stretched by Mr. Fantastic to make the movie last 10 times longer than 90 minutes.
Rating: PG for sexual innuendo, mild epithets, and action violence.
Running time: 92 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Fox
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One-Night Stand Leads To Unplanned Pregnancy In Battle-Of-The-Sexes Comedy
Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) and Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) are polar opposites with nothing in common other than being 20-somethings living in Los Angeles. Alison’s an ambitious, aspiring journalist, who just landed her big break as an on-air reporter for the E! Television Network. Ben, on the other hand, is an unemployed underachiever who’s sharing a bachelor pad with four equally-immature couch potatoes intent on delaying the onset of adulthood.
Ben and his roommates typically hang out in their living room in a weed-induced haze, making grandiose plans which never materialize to launch a raunchy Web site called Flesh of the Stars. Straitlaced Alison, by contrast, is on the fast track to the top of the showbiz ladder. Well, she is, at least until the fateful moment that a flirtatious, curly-headed stranger approaches her in a pickup bar.
She isn’t actually into the singles scene, and is only in the club to celebrate her promotion with her big sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann), a jaded housewife stuck in a bad marriage. But that doesn’t discourage Ben from inviting himself to join them and trying to lower Alison’s resistance by plying her with beer. At the end of the evening, against her better judgment, she invites him back to her apartment, where she compounds that mistake by assuming a compromising position without first making sure he’s using protection.
The next morning, as their hangovers wear off, they instantly grate on each others nerves, making it abundantly clear that their ill-advised abandon had been the result of an alcohol-fueled temporary insanity. So, they part company never expecting to set eyes on one another again.
Eight weeks later, however, after Alison has missed a couple of periods, she determines that she’s expecting and tracks down her sperm donor to let him know he’s going to be a daddy. Needless to say, Ben, a sleazy slacker who would rather be chasing his next conquest than changing diapers, takes the news of his impending fatherhood very badly.
This contentious premise provides plenty of opportunities not only for further acrimony but also sows the seeds for potential post-coital romance in Knocked Up, a coarse yet curiously charming battle-of-the-sexes comedy written and directed by Judd Apatow (The 40 Year-Old Virgin). With this, just his second feature film, Apatow establishes himself as a master of the delicate art of offsetting lowbrow humor with enough convincingly tenderhearted moments to produce a picture with universal appeal.
For fans of bodily function humor will undoubtedly relish all the bawdy boys’ behavior back in Ben’s flat, as well as shocking sight gags involving pregnant Alison barfing and giving birth. Meanwhile, audience members inclined towards more sophisticated fare will undoubtedly appreciate the badinage between her and Ben as she desperately endeavors to make him over into marriage material before the arrival of their bouncing bundle of joy.
The film relies heavily on a parallel subplot involving the strained marriage of the ever-vigilant Debbie and her emotionally-exasperated spouse, Pete (Paul Rudd). Debbie suspects him of cheating on her, and cries on Alison’s shoulder while enlisting her assistance in her effort to catch him in the act. The females’ spying hijinks are simultaneously offset by Pete’s periodic male-bonding opportunities with commitment-phobic Ben, who’s understandably reluctant to take advice about walking down the aisle from a guy stuck in such a shaky relationship.
Knocked Up adds up to a hilarious family-values flick, which manages to convince you that it’s possible to transform a misogynist into a doting father on the guilt of an unplanned pregnancy. Sometimes it’s fun to pretend, and this just happens to be an excellent example of one of those occasions.
Rating: R for premarital sexuality, coarse humor, frontal nudity, drug and alcohol abuse, profanity and mature themes.
Running time: 129 minutes
Studio: Universal Pictures
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Documentary Presents Junkyards As Mammoth Works Of Modern Art
Remember that Keep America Beautiful PSA campaign featuring an Indian wiping away a tear because somebody in a passing car threw a piece of trash out of the window? Well, he’d go absolutely bonkers if he got a load of what’s going on in China, now that the Industrial Revolution is in full bloom in the Orient.
To document the toll that “progress” is taking on the planet, director Jennifer Baichwal carted her camera to a number of dumping grounds around the People’s Republic, capturing in breathtaking detail the fallout being visited upon the region due to the headlong rush to Westernize. With the help of award-winning stills photographer Edward Burtynsky, she visited everything from recycling junkyards to hollowed-out strip mines to depleted rock quarries to soul-sapping mega-assembly lines and any other sites which might drive home the salient point that there is a steep price to be paid for runaway consumption.
Manufactured Landscapes is a powerful picture, primarily because it never proselytizes but simply allows its visually overwhelmed audience to draw its own conclusions about the unconsidered downside of living beyond our ecological means. For how else might one react except with a combination of awe and guilt, say, to the sight of a narrow path carved through a man-made mountain of discarded tires piled high into the sky?
A timely meditation on one country’s carbon footprints which subtly suggests we all consider redefining the meaning of civilization.
Running time: 80 minutes
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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Clooney And Company Reconvene For Revenge In Intricate Crime Caper
Upping the ante in terms of intrigue while toning it down in terms of action, Ocean’s Thirteen is a relatively-cerebral affair which offers an absorbing alternative to the summer blockbusters of the over-stimulating, special effects-driven variety. All the boys are back in this cast crowded with male matinee idols, starting with George Clooney as ringleader Danny Ocean, and including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, Carl Reiner, Casey Affleck, Elliott Gould, Shaobo Qin, Scott Caan and Eddie Jemison. Meanwhile, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Julia Roberts have opted out of this installment in favor of Ellen Barkin who’s flying solo, here, as the fetching femme fatale.
The film also introduces a new villain in Al Pacino as Willy Bank, a particularly ruthless mobster who has just bilked Reuben (Gould) of the millions he was set to retire on. The rest of the rat pack prove that there is still honor among thieves when they decide to reunite for the sake of their apoplectic mentor currently confined to bed in critical condition due to the stress of the double-crossing.
With Bank about to launch a new casino on the strip in Las Vegas, the gang agrees to bankrupt him by rigging the games so that the house will lose $500 million on opening night. Furthermore, since they are aware of the cocky kingpin’s fondness for diamonds, they conspire to relieve him of a quarter billion in precious stones hidden away in a presumably-impregnable penthouse vault. In it more for revenge for the money, they even hope to embarrass Bank for good measure by having the hotel receive low grades from the fussy inspector (David Paymer) assigned to rate the quality of its services.
After brief prefatory sequences show the team’s reunion and establish the above premise, masterminds Danny and Rusty (Pitt) discover that to succeed they must map out a strategy to defeat a state-of-the-art surveillance system capable of reasoning like a human being. As the details of the scheme are finalized, they realize that their elaborate plan is going to be much more expensive than anticipated, since it involves everything from simulating an earthquake to infiltrating a Mexican dice factory.
Therefore, they grudgingly make strange bedfellows with former adversary Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), offering the cutthroat crime boss a share of the profits in return for a sizable investment. He agrees, and at this juncture the story divides into numerous parallel plots as each participant gets his assignment and prepares for D-Day in his own inimitable fashion.
Ladies-man Linus (Matt Damon) wines and dines Abigail (Barkin), Willy’s conniving confidante. Siblings Virgil (Affleck) and Turk (Caan) go undercover to sow seeds of discontent among employees on an assembly line in Mexico. Saul (Reiner) masquerades as a high roller from London, while Basher (Cheadle) the Brit is put in charge of creating the artificial earthquake. Each of the rest infiltrates the casino somehow as either an employee or guest, before patiently awaiting to drain the place of every penny at the appointed hour.
The appeal of Ocean’s Thirteen rests not in the execution of the patently preposterous crime caper, but in the easygoing badinage among the members of the ensemble. For though there are few surprises as the pat plot marches inexorably to its predictable finale, there’s something nice about being in on the joke at probably improvised moments such as when a clowning Clooney breaks from the script to suggest to Pitt that he ought to settle down and have a couple of kids.
A downright comfortable diversion in male-bonding that doesn’t ask anything of you except to sit back, relax and eat some popcorn.
Rating: PG-13 for brief sensuality.
Running time: 122 minutes
Studio: Warner Brothers
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The Trials Of Darryl Hunt
Convict Vindicated By DNA Evidence In Miscarriage Of Justice Documentary
Back in 1984, Debbie Sykes, a popular reporter from Winston-Salem, NC, was brutally raped and slain and left scantily clad in a wooded area of her hometown. Because the victim was a well-known, young blonde, the police were under considerable pressure to crack the high-profile case.
Based on the positive identification by Thomas Murphy, a Ku Klux Klansman, a 19 year-old Black kid named Darryl Hunt was soon fingered as the perpetrator. In spite of a lack of evidence linking him to the crime scene, Darryl was arrested and charged with the murder.
While behind bars, he was jailed briefly with Jessie Moore, a white convict who would later be promised parole in return for damning testimony against his cellmate. Under oath, Moore swore that claimed Hunt had confessed killing Sykes to him.
After a trial which might best be described as a rush to judgment, Hunt was found guilty by an all-white jury which took the word of a couple of shady characters over that of an innocent African-American kid with a solid alibi. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he would languish in prison for ten years till his plight came to the attention of the Innocence Project.
At the behest of attorney Barry Scheck, a member of O.J. Simpson’s infamous Dream Team, the case was reopened and it was determined that Darryl’s DNA did not match any of the semen left on the body of Sykes. And although it was thus readily apparent by 1994 that he was indeed innocent, it would take another decade before the corrupt Carolina court system would finally be forced to clear his name.
That tireless effort to set a wrongfully-convicted man free is the subject of The Trials of Darryl Hunt, a disturbing bio-pic chronicling a mammoth miscarriage of justice which can only be explained as resulting from deep-seated racism. Despite its feel-good resolution, the film offers little in the way of reassurance that the next Black man framed in the Deep South won’t have to wait just as long to be vindicated.
Running time: 107 minutes
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