Saturday, February 28, 2009

This Is the Life DVD



DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Hip-Hop Doc Revisits Legendary L.A. Rap Scene

Most people probably think of the Los Angeles rap scene as primarily being comprised of the West Coast gangstas who became locked in a bloody turf war with their East Coast counterparts which claimed the lives of Tupac and Biggie. While that sensationalized story was recently revisited by the bio-pic Notorious, folks interested in a more accurate, historical account of the evolution of the L.A. hip-hop scene ought to check out a documentary called This Is the Life.
The film marks the impressive directorial debut of Ava Duvernay, herself a founding member of this collective of talented artists who, in 1989, began gathering every Thursday evening at the Good Life Café, a health food store located in South Central. Once a week, from 8 to 10 PM, proprietor B. Hall turned the place into an impromptu nightclub where street poets aspiring to be rap stars could hone their skills in front of critical audiences from the community which crammed into her tiny establishment. Ms. Hall had a few rules which were strictly enforced, including “no profanity,” “no leaning on the paintings,” “no gum on the floor” and “please pass the mike” when being booed off the stage.
Via a vibrant mix of archival footage and present-day interviews with both performers and their appreciative fans, This Is the Life chronicles the rise and fall of an innovative, musical movement which profoundly influenced commercial hip-hop. Unfortunately, although a few of the emcees who got their start at the Good Life Café went on to enjoy a modest measure of success in hip-hop, we learn that they were generally unable to cash-in like their better-connected contemporaries with more business-savvy.
For apparently several industry icons like Ice Cube stole material from Good Life Café regulars en route to fame and fortune. But the movie opts to downplay incidents of plagiarism in favor of featuring appearances by artists who employed such colorful sobriquets as Abstract Rule, Born Allah, Pigeon John, Riddlore, Big Al, Wreckless, Ellay Khule, Medusa, Q., MYKA NYNE, Busdriver, Ganjah K, Big Baby, CVE, Tray-Loc, Cut Chemist, Volume 10, Jyant, Ronda Ross, 2 Mex, Fat Jack,T-Love, Peace, Chali 2NA and F Stl, and perhaps most notably Eve, aka Ava Duvernay, a rapper-turned-filmmaker with a very bright future behind the camera.
An overdue tribute to a generation of gifted youngsters whose seminal contributions to popular culture deserve to be acknowledged, if only to validate the fact that L.A. rap’s roots are far more rich, diverse, sophisticated and uplifting than the materialistic and misogynistic messages that they’ve been reduced to by the music videos found in regular rotation on BET and MTV.

Excellent (4 stars)
Unrated
Running time: 97 minutes
Studio: Forward Movement Films

Friday, February 27, 2009

What Just Happened DVD



DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Showbiz Satire Offers Inside Look at Challenge of Moviemaking in Hollywood

Ben’s (Robert De Niro) life is an unmitigated mess. First of all, the famous Hollywood producer has a couple of projects coming apart at the seams. The first, titled “Fiercely,” starring Sean Penn (played by Penn himself), has already been completed. But it has fared so poorly in test screenings that the studio head, Lou (Catherine Keener), is pressuring Ben to change the depressing ending during which the dog dies.
This development doesn’t sit well with the movie’s drug-addicted director (Michael Wincott), an artistic purist who insists on leaving his masterpiece as is. Nonetheless, Lou threatens to pull rank and hire someone else to re-shoot the scene, since under the contract she has reserved approval of the final cut.
Ben’s other headache is Bruce Willis (played by Willis himself), who has signed on to play the leading man in his next picture. The problem is that Willis has not only shown up overweight and out of shape, but sporting a full beard that he’s refusing to shave.
Unfortunately, Ben’s personal life is even more of a mess. He has two ex wives, and is still attached to one of them, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn). She, however, flaunts in his face, the fact that she’s sleeping with a scriptwriter (Stanley Tucci), while their teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart) is equally-estranged from her father.
Directed by Oscar-winner Barry Levinson (for Rain Man), What Just Happened was adapted by Art Linson from his novel of the same name. More understated than sidesplitting, this biting satire of showbiz offers an amusing enough inside peek at what life might be like in Tinseltown to remain recommended, its mostly inside industry jokes notwithstanding.

Very Good (3 stars)
Rated R for profanity, sexuality, violent images, and drug use.
Running time: 104 minutes
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
DVD Extras: Director/producer Barry Levinson’s commentary with writer Art Linson, deleted scenes, “Behind-the-Scenes” and “The Making of” documentaries, casting sessions plus another featurette.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

An American Affair



Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Schoolboy Develops Crush on JFK Mistress in Coming-of-Age Melodrama

While President Kennedy was in office, the press apparently turned the other way while he was cheating on his wife, Jackie, with Marilyn Monroe and his other girlfriends. Those days were very different from the present when everything is fair game, and it’s always up to a loyal wife to save the political career of her philandering husband, like First Lady Hillary did for Bill Clinton repeatedly. An American Affair, set in Washington, D.C. in 1963, revolves around an implausible love triangle involving JFK, a beautiful divorcee (Gretchen Mol) and a 13 year-old boy (Cameron Bright).
At the point of departure we meet Adam in uniform at his Catholic school, where he is obviously unhappy about being bullied. Soon thereafter, we see the lonely latchkey kid letting himself into his home in Georgetown, since both of his parents (Perrey Reeves and Noah Wyle) are employed as journalists. Then, just while he’s enjoying a layout in the latest issue of Playboy, he looks out the window and lo and behold is treated to the sight of his gorgeous, new next-door neighbor undressing.
This fortuitous development turns Adam into a Peeping Tom till he summons up the courage to introduce himself to the object of his affection. The excuse he uses to approach Catherine is that he needs a job to raise money for a school trip to Europe. Aware of his barely-contained crush, she decides to hire him as her gardener.
However, this only serves to escalate his obsession to the level of stalking. Now monitoring the inside of her apartment with a camera, he can’t help but notice that his competition is the President. He even sneaks in one day to read her journal only to end up watching them make love from inside Catherine’s closet.
The entire kinky scenario unfolds against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it gradually becomes clear that Castro might be planning a little revenge in Dallas. Regrettably, JFK was too busy sowing his wild oats to listen to a mistress willing to pass along a warning from an earnest CIA operative.
Brace yourself for a bittersweet sendoff, since the prognosis is likely tragic for a wayward woman not only sleeping with the President but entertaining the advances of a minor to boot. A flick for Kennedy assassination conspiracy buffs which puts a whole new spin on “the grassy knoll” courtesy of the flamboyance of a nearly-naked Gretchen Mol.

Very Good (3 stars)
Rated R for nudity, sexuality and profanity.
Running time: 93 minutes
Studio: Screen Media Films

Examined Life



Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Cornel West & Company Weigh-In on the State of American Culture

According to Socrates, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” and that quote ostensibly served as the inspiration for this documentary deeply exploring the mindset underpinning American culture. To that end, this readily-accessible discourse on philosophy relies on the novel insights of nine leading academics, beginning and ending with Princeton Professor Dr. Cornel West.
West was interviewed in Manhattan on his way to Penn Station while sitting in the back of a car being driven by director Astra Taylor. He wonders aloud about “What happens when you begin to call into question your tacit assumptions and unarticulated presumptions,” suggesting that you begin to become a different person. He goes on to talk about the challenge to survive in this society in the face of a “patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism and state power,” and “a structure of domination not accountable to the people affected by it.”
Another Princeton Professor, ethicist Peter Singer, is shot strolling along Fifth Avenue in front of some of the most expensive stores in the world, like Bergdorf Goodman. There, in the midst of unalloyed decadence, he indicts conspicuous consumption by suggesting that we have a moral obligation not merely to do no harm but to help reduce “the amount of unnecessary pain and suffering in the world.”
Other subjects weighing-in include Berkeley feminist Judith Butler, Duke’s anti-corporate firebrand Michael Hardt, University of Chicago’s Law Professor Martha Nussbaum, avuncular NYU deconstructionist Avital Ronell, disabled artist Sunaura Taylor, Princeton’s cosmopolitan Kwame Anthony Appiah and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, the subject of Ms. Taylor’s first film.
Endlessly thought-provoking at every turn, Examined Life offers a transcendental experience which amounts to the most satisfying cinematic experience of 2009 thus far.

Excellent (4 stars)
Unrated
Running time: 88 minutes
Studio: Zeitgeist Films

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Kam's Kapsules: Weekly Previews That Make Choosing a Film Fun

OPENING THIS WEEK
Kam's Kapsules:
Weekly Previews That Make Choosing a Film Fun
by Kam Williams
For movies opening March 6, 2009


BIG BUDGET FILMS

Watchmen (R for nudity, sexuality, profanity and graphic violence) Sci-fi thriller, based on the graphic comic book series of the same name, about a group of vigilantes determined to avenge the murder of a crime-fighting superhero. Ensemble cast includes Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Carla Gugino, Malin Akerman and Patrick Wilson.


INDEPENDENT & FOREIGN FILMS

12 (PG-13 for violence, mature themes, disturbing images, brief sexuality, drug references and smoking) Russian remake of the Sidney Lumet classic 12 Angry Men revolves around the deliberations of a jury deciding the fate of a teenager (Apti Magamayev) on trial for the murder of his stepfather. (In Russian and Chechen with subtitles)

Everlasting Moments (Unrated) Costume drama, set in Sweden in the early 20th C., about a working-class woman (Maria Heiskanen) whose life is changed forever when she wins a camera in the lottery. (In Swedish and Finnish with subtitles)

Fados (Unrated) Concert flick featuring an historical tribute to Fado, a melancholy musical genre traced back to Lisbon in the 1820s blending elements of African, Arab, Portuguese and Brazilian traditions. (In Portuguese with subtitles)

The Horsemen (R for profanity, sexuality, grisly images and disturbing content) Crime thriller about a recently-widowed police detective (Dennis Quaid) who uncovers a terrifying link between himself and the quartet of serial killers suspected in a string of Biblically-themed slayings.

New York City Serenade (R for profanity, sexuality and drug use) Buddy comedy about a down-and-out drummer (Chris Klein) who accompanies his just-jilted best friend (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) to a film festival where the aspiring director has been invited to show his low-budget flick. Cast includes Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Ben Schwartz and Christopher DeBlasio.

Phoebe in Wonderland (PG-13 for mature themes and brief profanity) Elle Fanning stars in this modern fairy tale about a young girl with Tourette’s Syndrome who finds a constructive way to channel her destructive, obsessive-compulsive urges with the help of a drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) who casts her in a school production as Alice in Wonderland.

Reunion (Unrated) Ivy League drama about members of a Yale University secret society who get back together for an eventful weekend a decade after the death of the wife of a member (Jake Cullen). Cast includes Christopher McDonald, Sam Coppola and Zoe McLellan.

Sherman’s Way (Unrated) Wine country misadventure about a just-dumped, Yale law student (Michael Shulman) who befriends an eccentric, 50 year-old (James LeGros) before embarking on an eventful road trip together across Napa Valley in a red roaster. With M. Emmet Walsh, Brooke Nevin and Donna Murphy.

Tokyo! (Unrated) Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-Ho direct the three separate strands of this curious homage to Tokyo, a triskelion offering distinctly different perspectives of life inside the teeming city that could. (In Japanese and French with subtitles)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Black List, Volume 2 (HBO SPECIAL)



HBO Review by Kam Williams

Headline: HBO Special Again Profiles Prominent African-Americans

Film critic Elvis Mitchell and director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders have collaborated on another series of fascinating interviews with a mix of African-American artists, activists, academics and athletes. Many are instantly-recognizable icons who need no introduction, such as Tyler Perry, Laurence Fishburne, Melvin Van Peebles, Bishop T.D. Jakes and Angela Davis.
Others are a little less known, like Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, comedienne Maya Rudolph, country singer Charlie Pride, gangsta’ rapper RZA, painter Kara Walker, clothes designer Patrick Robinson and Oscar-nominated scriptwriter Suzanne De Passe And then there are those who have met with success away from the limelight, including Episcopal Bishop Barbara C. Harris, community organizer Mahora Carter and Dean of Meharry School of Medicine Dr. Valerie Montgomery-Rice.
What all 15 share, nonetheless, is the toll exacted on their psyches and souls by being black in America, something they weigh-in on honestly, each from a unique point of view. Walker talks about how weird it felt to be criticized by a college professor for painting a still life instead of a subject reflecting the black experience.
Bishop Jakes observes that “Our faith has been both a blessing and a curse, because we were taught to hope for heaven while we live in Hell on Earth.” Van Peebles speaks about cultivating his cornucopia of talents in the absence of any formal training, likening himself to the bumblebee which defies aeronautical explanation and “flies anyway.”
Maya Rudolph admits to having struggled with her identity, being a mixture of white, black and Jewish, yet looking like none of the above. “I always felt like an impostor,” she says of the pressure of her formative years, since it “cuts very deeply when you’re trying to figure out what about you is great.”
Majora Carter reflects on being raised in the slums of the South Bronx, where she grew up depressed about her brother’s murdered yet curiously unafraid of her dangerous surroundings.
Although unseen and unheard, celeb interviewer Elvis Mitchell must be again commended for eliciting such an array of frank and novel insights from this impressive assemblage of prominent African-American luminaries.

Excellent (4 stars)
Rated TV14 for profanity and adult content.
Running Time: 55 minutes
Studio: HBO

Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise

by Tavis Smiley
with Stephanie Robinson
Atria Books
Hardcover, $19.99
320 pages, illustrated
ISBN: 978-1-4391-0002-8



Book Review by Kam Williams

“During the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, while I was still the resident political commentator on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, I caused quite a stir among the listeners, who are largely African-American, by insisting that we hold then Senator Barack Obama accountable for both his political record and his campaign promises. I wasn’t singling him out, but rather applying the same standard to him that we should apply to all.
I feel now, as I did then, that it is our responsibility as engages citizens to expect now-President Barack Obama to live up to the promises that made him an appealing candidate… As Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmngham Jail reminds us, ‘Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes from the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.’
So, let us take Dr. King’s lead… and go forth and make real the promise of our democracy.”
 Excerpted from the Foreword (pages xii-xiii)

Last year, Tavis Smiley took a lot of heat over his reluctance to rubber-
stamp Barack Obama’s candidacy simply on the basis of its symbolism as opposed to demanding to know exactly what the substance of a victory might potentially mean for black America. Tavis’ hesitancy ostensibly came from a reasonable expectancy that Obama would have to deliver on his campaign promises, for his historic win to be of palpable value to the masses of black folks who had turned out in record numbers to support him at a rate of 93%.
Now, that Barack Obama is, indeed, President, Mr. Smiley has decided it’s time to hold him accountable to his constituency for those pledges made to get their votes. Thus, in conjunction with Harvard Professor Stephanie Robinson, Esq., Tavis has published a new book, Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise. The cover features a collage of faces representing every hue in the ethnic rainbow which together resemble President Obama.
Created as a companion text to Mr. Smiley’s 2006 best seller, The Covenant, each chapter delineates Obama’s campaign promises in terms of such areas in dire need of attention as health care, education, justice, the economy, and so forth. It also lays out an assessment checklist (including boxes) which will enable the reader to keep track of just how well the administration is doing. For example, when it comers to health care, it asks whether the President “made implementation of a health care plan a priority within the first 100 days.”
It is important to note that while Accountable does expect Obama to deliver, it very well concedes that to do so he will need the support of not only Congress, but also governors and other state officials, community leaders, faith-based organizations and ordinary citizens. And given the overwhelming anecdotal evidence of suffering shared in these pages, it is clear that the country is facing formidable challenges in the days ahead.
A compelling exercise in truth in advertising designed so that the nation can collectively keep Obama’s feet to the fire.

To see a complete list of President Obama’s 500 campaign promises, visit:
http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/promises/browse/

Monday, February 23, 2009

2009 Academy Awards Recap



Headline: Slumdog Sweeps!

Slumdog Millionaire emerged the big winner at the 81st Annual Academy Awards, garnering 8 Oscars overall, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Because none of Slumdog’s cast members were even nominated, the acting categories were up for grabs.
Sean Penn (Milk) upset sentimental favorite Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) in the Lead Actor category, while Kate Winslet (The Reader) won for Lead Actress because she was the only Brit nominated and since she did such a great job of turning a Nazi pedophile into a sexy and sympathetic character. As for supporting roles, the late Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) was a shoo-in, while Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) was a trickier pick, since no Spanish actress had won before.
The event was staged at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood where it was hosted by Hugh Jackman who mixed a little song-and-dance in with the ordinary emcee duties. Most notable among the others doing musical numbers were Beyonce and Queen Latifah, and the funniest presenters by far were Steve Martin and Tina Fey who were teamed together to hand out the scriptwriting awards..
As for acceptance speeches, the most memorable arrived early on, and was delivered by recipient Dustin Lance Black for Milk’s screenplay. After choking up, the openly-gay scriptwriter collected himself to thank his mother for her support and Harvey Milk for his inspiration.
Mr. Black concluded by reminding “all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches or by the government or by their families that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours.”
As for Oscar office pools, you’re probably sitting pretty right now, if you relied on this critic’s picks in filling out your entry, since I was correct on 19 of the 20 categories in which I made predictions. Perhaps most impressively, I tabbed Sean Penn to prevail over Mickey Rourke, despite the momentum the latter was enjoying coming into the evening.
You owe me.

COMPLETE LIST OF ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS

Picture: “Slumdog Millionaire”
Actor: Sean Penn, “Milk”
Actress: Kate Winslet, “The Reader”
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”
Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Director: Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, “Milk”
Documentary, Feature-Length: Man on Wire
Foreign Language Film: “Okuribito” (Japan)
Animated Feature: WALL-E
Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt, Victor J. Zolfo, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Sound Mixing: Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke, Resul Pookutty, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Sound Editing: Richard King, “The Dark Knight”
Original Score: A.R. Rahman, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Original Song: “Jai Ho” by A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Costume: Michael O’Connor, “The Duchess”
Film Editing: Chris Dickens, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Makeup: Greg Cannom, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Visual Effects: Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton, Craig Barron, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Animated Short: La Maison en Petites Cubes
Live Action Short: Spielzeugland
Documentary, Short: Smile Pinki

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tavis Smiley: The State of the Black Union Interview



with Kam Williams

Headline: Interviewing the Interviewer, Turning the Tables on Tavis

Born in Gulfport, Mississippi on September 13, 1964, Tavis Smiley was raised by his mother and step-father in a modest mobile home in Peru, Indiana along with his seven siblings and five orphaned cousins. After earning a B.A. at Indiana University where he majored in law, Tavis started his career as an aide to the late Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
He currently serves as the host of his PBS-TV talk show, Tavis Smiley, and he heads the Tavis Smiley Foundation whose mission is to enlighten, encourage and empower black youth. He is also the founder of Tavis Smiley Presents, an organization which brings ideas and people together through symposiums, seminars, forums, and town hall meetings.
In addition, he has authored ten books, making publishing history when “The Covenant with Black America” reached #1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Most recently, he published “Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise.”
In 2004, he was honored by Texas Southern University which opened the Tavis Smiley School of Communications and the Tavis Smiley Center for Professional Media Studies, making him the youngest African American ever to have a professional school and center named after him on a college campus.
Furthermore, Time named Tavis one of America’s 50 most promising young leaders, while Newsweek dubbed him one of the “20 people changing how Americans get their news.” From his celebrated conversations with world figures, to his work to inspire the next generation of leaders, as a broadcaster, author, advocate and philanthropist, Tavis continues to be an outstanding voice for change.
Here, he talks about the State of the Black Union, the 10th annual gathering of some of the most influential black thinkers, entertainers, and political leaders. This year, the event is being staged at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Saturday, February 28th and airing live on C-Span from 11 AM to 7:30 PM (ET).

KW: Hey Tavis, thanks for the time.
TS: My pleasure, man.
KW: Congratulations on staging another State of the Black Union. What do you have planned for Saturday?
TS: Another riveting conversation, as we enter into this Obama era. As you know, we’ve been doing this for ten years, and when we started, Kam, nobody could have ever imagined that in our 10th anniversary year we’d be celebrating the 100th birthday of the NAACP, Lincoln’s 200th birthday, the inauguration of the first African-American President, and even the election of Michael Steele as the head of the Republican Party, for that matter. So, it’s an interesting time to come together and reflect on these conversations we’ve been having for the past decade.
KW: What makes the gathering so special each time?
TS: It’s the only time when, for a whole day, you can turn on live television and watch the best thinkers in black America engaged in a dialogue. It only happens that one day a year, so everybody looks forward to it.
KW: Is there a theme that everybody will be addressing this go-round?
TS: Yes, making America as good as its promise. To answer your question, Kam, what we really want to get down to is how we navigate this gap between the promise of America and the possibility in America. Even with a black man in the White House, there’s a gap between the promise and the possibility in this country. There are people who think that, just because we have a black President, black kids no longer have any excuses. Well, that’s a bit naïve. There are structural barriers to other African-Americans becoming the President. So, there’s a lot to celebrate about the Obama election, and I’m on the front line doing the Electric Slide myself, celebrating. But at the end of the day, there’s still a lot of conversation to be had about how we, black people, take this moment and advance the causes and concerns that we care about so that we don’t look up four years from now and have celebrated a symbolic victory, but not have a substantive victory. That’s what the conversation’s going to be about.
KW: In 2006, your book, The Covenant, made my Ten Best List, while Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, was # 1 on my 10 Worst List.
TS: I remember reading that piece.
KW: What I appreciated about The Covenant, Tavis, was that it very specifically addresses areas where black people need help urgently, in employment, healthcare, education, housing, criminal justice, and so forth. By contrast, Obama’s book was vague if not silent in terms of the concerns of the African-American community, and amounted to little more than the transparent game plan of guileful politician. In it, he seemed to be taking the black vote for granted while clearly courting Republicans by praising President Reagan, who had supported apartheid and repeatedly referred to Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. That’s why I trashed the book in 2006, although I did support him after he threw his hat into the ring. Most black leaders seemed to clam up and were afraid to talk about any black agenda after Obama declared himself a candidate. Even last year’s State of the Black Union seemed almost like a referendum on Obama, and his conspicuous absence sort of hung over the event.
TS: You’re right, but that was hard to avoid, given all that was happening last year. It was hard to avoid the conversation being about Obama to some degree. That was to be expected when you have someone who’s driving towards making history. And he wasn’t even in the building. If you recall, Hillary did attend, and the conversation was still about Obama. This year, now that he’s President, the conversation, in a word, is going to be about accountability. How do we advance the causes and concerns of African-American people about health, about education, about the criminal justice system? Believe me, we’re going to get serious this year. Part of what happened last year was that there were many voices in the black community saying, “Let’s not discuss these issues. Let’s help the brother win first, and we can discuss these issues once he wins.” Well, that moment has arrived. He has won, and he’s safely ensconced in the West Wing of the White House. Now the moment has arrived to raise these issues. And it’s not about casting aspersions on him. And that was not what I was doing last year. My issue was with the question of accountability. And this conversation in this symposium in this 10th anniversary year was going to be about accountability no matter who the President was. What I’ve spent the bulk of my career talking about is accountability, and trying to move our people toward an accountability politics. We have to move beyond symbolism and get to substance. I believe that time for us is running out. The statistics are getting to be so damning that it would take ten generations of steady progress to turn it all around. The numbers are getting so bad for us in so many areas, pick one, education… the digital divide… health… that we may never catch up. One thing’s for certain, Kam. The only way we will catch up is if we have an agenda that we hold ourselves and our leaders accountable to. It won’t happen around celebrations of symbolism. We’ll have to get aggressive here, not unlike our Jewish brothers and sisters do on behalf of Israel.
KW: Yeah, you notice how Rahm Emmanuel’s father assured the Jewish community when his son was named Obama’s Chief of Staff that, “Obviously, he will influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn't he be? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House."
TS: Exactly. That’s my point. We’re going to have to get serious about an accountability agenda and about accountability politics. I don’t apologize for that. I just don’t see any way that we are ultimately going to advance the cause of our people.
KW: Your colleague at PBS, Gwen Ifill, has a new book out, The Breakthrough.
TS: Yeah, I’ve read it.
KW: In it, she quotes my review of the 2006 State of the Black Union in which I say that the younger leaders on the dais for the late afternoon session “were unfortunately given short shrift since long-winded speeches and CPT delays meant little time was left when they finally got their chance.” Is there any way to abbreviate the long introductions where the luminaries tend to hug and lavish praise on each other before getting down to business? And will the next generation of black leaders be allotted more time?
TS: I hear your concern. First, it’s important for you and others to understand that this event only happens one day a year, so most of these people don’t see each other but this one day a year. It’s not like we get together all the time. Number two, the greeting is part of the black custom. We don’t roll in cold as ice like other people and just go right at it. It’s just part of our tradition that we are warm and brotherly and sisterly with each other. That being said, there are a couple of things we’re doing differently this year. On Friday, the 27th, we’re hosting a youth symposium on the campus of USC in conjunction with MTV. Taking nothing away from young people, let’s be honest. The truth of the matter is that it’s hard when they’re trying to hold their own as part of a dialogue with Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson, Jesse Jackson, Charles Ogletree and Julianne Malveaux. It’s not that we gave them short shrift. If I didn’t have young leaders on there, somebody would complain that no young leaders were included. When I do include them, Kam complains that I don’t give them enough time. I catch hell either way. I’m a big boy and I can handle that. But it does require that people be a little sensitive about the challenges of putting on the program. Like I said, this year, on Friday, we’re having a panel specifically for young scholars. And the entire audience will be young people. Another thing we’re doing differently this year is we’re having a one-hour blogger’s panel at the end of the Saturday’s program. And some of the original panelists are going to stick around to engage in dialogue with five, pre-selected African-American bloggers. That bonus conversation will not be on C-Span, but a live webcast on the internet. So, yeah, we’re trying to evolve.
KW: Sounds good.
TS: I remember that we were in Houston the year you referred to, specifically. It was when I had that youth panel at the end. They were young influencers who weren’t really very well known. But nobody had ever thought of putting all those people on the same stage together before. We got a good hour and fifteen minutes in that day. It wasn’t as long as I’d planned, but at least we introduced them to the nation. Remember, this is television, and to get this thing televised nationally every year…
KW: You have to bring the big names.
TS: Exactly. It’s all a part of the process. So, I understand it when people want to take their shots, it’s cool, but I have a sense of what I’m doing here, because ten years ago, this didn’t exist at all. I don’t take that criticism personally, but I know what I have to do to make the event successful. And I can’t please everybody.
KW: I’ve always given the event a very positive review, so I was surprised to see the excerpt Gwen used in her book.
TS: Gwen just took the negative part, that’s all.
KW: Yep. The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
TS: Very much so.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
TS: Yes, of death.
KW: “Realtor to the Stars” Jimmy Bayan question: Where in L.A. do you live?
TS: I live right in Hancock Park.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
TS: Ooh, great question. Looking for Lincoln.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music are you listening to nowadays?
TS: I have the most eclectic musical taste of anybody. Right now, I’m listening to a lot of Sixties soul music… Stax… Motown… Chess… because I’m working on a film documentary
KW: The Rudy Lewis question: Who’s at the top of your hero list?
TS: MLK.
KW: Is there a question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
TS: [Chuckles] That’s a good question, but no, I get asked more than enough questions.
KW: The Laz Alonso question: How can your fans help you?
TS: That’s another good question. By being the leader that they are looking for.
KW: Thanks again for the time and good luck on Saturday.
TS: Thanks, Kam. See you, brother.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Madea Goes to Jail



Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Tyler Perry’s Back in Drag for Another Modern Morality Play

Tyler Perry is a master at making modern morality plays which address an array of concerns of the African-American community. What makes his films feel so authentic is that his characters invariably reflect black culture in a manner which is instantly recognizable and thus effortlessly resonates with the audience as real. Another plus is Perry’s knowing how to mix-in plenty of comic relief without diluting the power of the sobering message he’s trying to deliver.
Loosely-based on the stage production of the same name, Madea Goes to Jail just might be Tyler Perry’s best endeavor to date. The film stars Tyler, back in drag, as the sassy, pistol-packing Mable “Madea” Simmons, heading a talented ensemble which includes Viola Davis, Derek Luke, Ion Overman, Keisha Knight Pulliam and David and Tamela J. Mann.
The cast also features an incredible number of celebrity cameos, most notably, Dr. Phil, and TV Judges Greg Mathis and Mablean Ephriam, not to mention Reverend Al Sharpton, comedian Steve Harvey, DJs Tom Joyner and Michael Baisden, CNN news anchor Tony Harris, and The View talk show hosts Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Sherri Shepherd and Elisabeth Hasselbeck. Fortunately, balancing all the egos never gets in the way of making a hilarious flick, for the finished product is a rollicking roller coaster that ought to be fun for the whole family.
At the point of departure, we find Madea in front of Judge Mablean who lets the hell-raising granny off with a slap on the wrist and a stern warning for leading police on a high-speed freeway chase. Instead of landing behind bars, she is ordered to undergo treatment for anger management with Dr. Phil. While on the coach, she and the shrink engage in a hilarious exchange reminiscent of Abbott and Costello’s classic “Who’s on First?”
Needless to say, the therapy doesn’t work, and Madea goes berserk again when a customer steals her parking spot at the mall. After wrecking the woman’s car with a forklift, Madea is arrested again but ends up this time in front of a very incensed Judge Mathis who decides to teach her a lesson with a sentence of 5-10 years.
Meanwhile, there’s a whole parallel plot unfolding involving Assistant District Attorney Joshua Hardaway (Luke) who is engaged to Linda (Overman), a bourgie colleague who doesn’t understand why he might care about rehabilitating Candy (Pulliam), a former girlfriend who has turned to streetwalking. With the help of a prison minister (Davis), Josh does his best to get his ex the help she needs anyway, a decision which destabilizes his once solid relationship. Everything comes to a head when Madea and Candy cross paths in a correctional facility, leading to tidy resolution which not only ties loose ends but elicits a few tears.
Remember to stay for the closing credits, for some bonus badinage between Madea and Dr. Phil.

Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual situations, mature themes and drug use.
Running time: 103 minutes
Studio: Lions Gate Films

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Jessica Sinclaire’s Thug Love DVD



DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Dumped Divorcee Dates Bad Boy in Rocky Romance Drama

Destiny Charles (Millenia Gay) finds herself on the verge of being single for the first time in a dozen years after being unceremoniously dumped by her ungrateful husband for a younger woman. Although the forty-something advertising executive is suddenly available, she’s too busy climbing the corporate ladder to think about dating anybody just yet. For her boss has promised that if she lands the prized Asoki account for the firm, her reward will be a coveted promotion to partner.
However, her focus shifts from career to romance the day she accidentally crosses paths with Troy, (Rich Paul), a handsome hunk half her age who introduces himself as a photographer. By her own admission, Destiny feels lonely, and against her better judgment she lets the young man sweep her off her feet. And after a steamy one-night stand, she falls head-over-heels for this virtual stranger and proceeds to get her groove back, so to speak.
She subsequently buys him a suit so he can accompany her to a company cocktail party at her boss’ home where the Japanese clients she’s trying hard to woo will also be in attendance. But wouldn’t you know it, the outclassed Troy misbehaves badly, putting a strain not only on Destiny’s employment prospects but on their budding relationship but as well.
Still attracted to the bad boy, but conflicted about what to do, she consults a concerned Greek chorus of close girlfriends who wonder whether she loves him. But what Destiny doesn’t know is that Troy is already two-timing her and is only using her as a Sugar Mama.
So, there are many minefields lying in wait in Jessica Sinclaire’s Thug Love, a low-budget romance drama that is rather rough around the edges. The film suffers from second-rate lighting and sound equipment and from love scenes where neither party appears particularly happy to be in bed together. Throw in all the profanity, the n-word, a dumb blonde, dumber Asians, and a dubious denouement, and there isn’t really much to recommend about this mediocre mess.

Fair (1 star)
Unrated
Running time: 85 minutes
Studio: Lightyear Entertainment

Sex Drive DVD



DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: This Critic’s Pick as #1 Indie Released on DVD

Ian Lafferty (Josh Zuckerman) is your prototypical high school grad with one mission in life: to lose his virginity before heading off to college in the fall. But the 18 year-old nerd’s prospects of quenching his raging hormones aren’t that great since he’s awkward around girls, especially Felicia (Amanda Crew), the cute classmate he has a big crush on. Trouble is, she only sees him as a nice guy she can confide in about her own boy problems.
Secondly, Ian’s job as the mascot of a coffee shop tends to get in the way, because he spends most of the day walking around the mall disguised as a giant donut. And things aren’t any better for Ian at home, where he’s mercilessly teased for possibly being gay by his older brother, Rex (James Marsden), a macho stud with a classic Pontiac GTO from 1969. To add insult to injury, even his younger brother (Cole Peterson) is already having better luck with the ladies.
Ian’s fate seems to change the day he meets “Ms. Tasty” online, a blonde temptress who’s very impressed by his embellished bio and computer-enhanced photos. She promises to make it worth his while if he shows up in Knoxville behind the wheel of the muscle car he claims to drive. So, Ian “borrows” his brother’s GTO without permission, and sets out for Tennessee from Chicago accompanied by Felicia and his best friend, Lance (Clark Duke), for the 1,000-mile road trip of a lifetime.
Sometimes, getting there is all he fun, and this is the case with Sex Drive, this critic’s pick as the #1 independent film of 2008. (See http://www.kamwilliams.com/2008/12/10-best-no-100-best-films-of-2008.html ) En route to Ian’s romantic rendezvous with Ms. Tasty, our hardy trio has hilarious encounters at every turn, whether with a homeless hitchhiker, kinky trailer trash, trigger-happy cops or wayward Amish.
Brace yourself for outrageous fare ranging from politically-incorrect epithets to explicit dialogue to scatological humor to male and female frontal nudity. Yet, underneath all the scummy hijinks, there’s a redeeming message about true love waiting to be revealed, allowing for a sweet sendoff which manages to make Sex Drive very special for a shock comedy.

Excellent (4 stars)
Rated R for crude humor, profanity, sexuality, nudity, and drug and alcohol use, all involving teens.
Running time: 109 minutes
Studio: Summit Entertainment
2-Disc DVD Extras: Theatrical and unrated versions of the film, audio commentary with the director, writer and producer, plus three featurettes.

Hounddog DVD



DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Loss of Innocence Adventure Starring Dakota Fanning Arrives on DVD

It’s rural Alabama in the late Fifties, and little Lewellen (Dakota Fanning) is feeling pangs of sexual awakenings. Unfortunately, the prepubescent adolescent is being raised by her Bible-thumping grandmother (Piper Laurie) whose repressive rules have the curious tomboy spending most of her free time out of the house.
One of her escapes is to her alcoholic father’s (David Morse) rundown shack located at the other end of the property. The problem is that her pappy is an abusive, mangy mutt of a man who has never amounted to anything. He mostly mopes around in bed all day, waiting for a visit from his victim-type girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn).
Early on we learn that something bad must have occurred between dad and daughter, because Lewellen informs her pal Buddy (Cody Hanford) of her plans not only to kill her father but to neuter him as well. Another hint that she might have been molested is that she pressures Buddy to expose himself to her for a kiss.
Lewellen’s only healthy outlet seems to be singing, since she loves Elvis Presley (Ryan Pelton) and not at all shy about belting out any of The King’s greatest hits. The plot thickens when an offer of a free ticket to an Elvis concert ends in rape. The tragedy easily eclipses Lewellen’s other personal setbacks, such as her father’s being struck by lightning and Buddy’s head being turned by the cute rich kid (Isabelle Fuhrman) who just moved into the mansion next-door for the summer.
Thanks to the compassion of a kindly black caretaker (Afemo Omilami) who moonlights in a band with Big Mama Thornton (Jill Scott), it isn’t long before Lewellen lands on the road to recovery. Too bad the picture simply isn’t very convincing in selling the idea that an easygoing philosopher’s waxing romantic about the meaning of life and music might be sufficient to heal the psychic scars of a child left traumatized by a sexual assault.
An ill-advised variation on Black Snake Moan touting loss of innocence as a source of inspiration.

Fair (1 star)
Rated R for sexuality, ethnic slurs and the rape of a young girl.
Running time: 99 minutes
Studio: Hannover House

Viva DVD

DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: DVD Revisits the Sixties in Steamy Satire of Sleazy Sexploits

The Sixties gave rise to a practically plot-free form of sexploitation film which amounted to little more than a lame excuse to have curvy coeds cavort across the screen in assorted states of undress. Perhaps the king of this sleazy genre was Russ Meyer a purveyor of low-budget smut with suggestive titles such as “Eve and the Handyman,” “Naked Camera,” “Wild Gals of the Naked West,” “Heavenly Bodies,” and “Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”
Viva pays homage to that sordid chapter in the annals of cinema in much the same way that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez recently tipped their director’s caps to cheapo scary movies from the Fifties with their nostalgic double feature “Grindhouse.” This picture is the brainchild of Anna Biller, who not only wrote and directed her hilarious, hedonistic adventure, but stars in it as well.
The story is set in Los Angeles in 1972, which is where we find perky best friends Barbi (Biller) and Sheila (Bridget Brno), bored suburban housewives stuck in unsatisfying marriages. Not long past the point of departure, the former is left by her husband, Rick (Chad England), while the latter and her hubby (Jared Sanford) agree to go their separate ways.
This gives the curious girls free rein to indulge their every sexual fantasy, from swinging to orgies to nudism to free love to prostitution. What’s best about Viva is the way in which the production faithfully conforms to the sensibilities of the aforementioned skin flicks, except perhaps for adding an anachronistic dash of refreshing female empowerment to the mix.
Otherwise, our exhibitionistic heroines incessantly involve themselves in nearly naked antics against a campy backdrop of appropriately gaudy color schemes reminiscent of the period. With the kinky action underscored by an appropriately seedy, soft-porn soundtrack, it all adds up to a trippy, tongue-in-cheek peep show.

Excellent (3.5 stars)
Unrated
Running time: 120 minutes
Studio: Cult Epics/Ryko

To see a trailer of Viva, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyecxbawQGI

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Kam's Kapsules: Weekly Previews That Make Choosing a Film Fun

OPENING THIS WEEK
Kam's Kapsules:
Weekly Previews That Make Choosing a Film Fun
by Kam Williams
For movies opening February 27, 2009


BIG BUDGET FILMS

Crossing Over (R for sexuality, nudity, graphic violence and pervasive profanity)
“Crash”-like ensemble drama chronicles the clash of cultures in L.A. resulting from the flood of immigrants attempting to attain legal status in the U.S. Cast includes Harrison Ford, Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd and Alice Braga.

Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience (G) Available in 3-D only, this Disney flick features both the performance highlights and backstage antics of siblings Nick, Joe and Kevin as the pop phenoms crisscross the country on their 2008 “Burning Up Tour.”

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (PG-13 for sensuality and martial arts violence) Screen adaptation of the popular video game franchise stars Kristin Kreuk as the kicking title character of an action adventure which pits the high-kicking heroine against the forces of evil in an epic showdown on the mean streets of Bangkok. Supporting cast includes Michael Clarke Duncan, Chris Klein and Neal McDonough.


INDEPENDENT & FOREIGN FILMS

An American Affair (R for profanity and sexuality) Coming-of-age drama, set in 1963 against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, about the forbidden relationship which blossoms between a lonely 13 year-old (Cameron Bright) and the stunningly-beautiful divorcee (Gretchen Mol) who moves in next-door.

Assassination of a High School President (R for sexuality, nudity, profanity, drug and alcohol abuse, all involving teens) Irreverent teensploit set a Catholic high school and revolving around a popular senior (Mischa Barton) who enlists the help of a nerdy sophomore (Reese Thompson) to crack the case of the stolen SAT tests. Cast includes Bruce Willis, Zoe Kravitz, Melonie Diaz and Michael Rapaport.

Examined Life (Unrated) The current mindset of America is the subject of this documentary, directed by Astra Taylor, which takes a number of leading academic intellectuals like Cornel West, Peter Singer and Anthony Appiah away from academia and into the streets of America where they weigh-in on cultural issues ranging from consumerism to individualism to modern morality.

Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead (Unrated) “With friends like these” documentary about the unusual bond forged between a capital punishment advocate (Robert Blecker) and an inmate on Death Row (Daryl Holton) for murdering four of his own children.

The Trouble with Romance (Unrated) Battle-of-the-sexes drama, unfolding as a quartet of separate vignettes, dissects the assorted relationship challenges faced by four couples in crisis living in Los Angeles. With Kip Pardue and Emily Liu.

Must Read after My Death

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Skeletons in the Closet Documentary Deconstructs Dysfunctional Marriage

Forget Revolutionary Road, if you want to see a period piece about a Connecticut couple in crisis, check out this skeletons-in-the-closet documentary deconstructing the dysfunctional marriage of Allis and Charlie. The movie was made by Morgan Dews who decided to document his late grandparents’ miserable home life which was marked by spousal and child abuse, alcoholism, infidelity, insanity and tragedy.
Allis and Charlie’s neighbors in their upscale, suburban Hartford community probably had no idea what was going on behind their closed doors. And the only reason it’s coming to light now is that, after they both died, grandson Morgan discovered a suitcase up in the attic containing family photographs, 8mm home movies, candid audiotapes from sessions with shrinks and intimate audio journals entries from over the years.
Appreciating the potential entertainment value of graphic material like his grandmother’s ranting about being a housewife stuck at home with four kids while her husband practically flaunts his mistresses in her face, Morgan set about weaving the most salacious moments he could find into a riveting, warts-and-all bio-pic you can’t take your eyes off of. For, because you hear the preserved voices of each of the actual participants, their emotions, whether pain, anger, fear or despair, still feel as raw and as real as when they were uttered thirty or forty years ago.
Unfortunately, Allis and Charlie’s marital discontent took a terrible toll on their children, too. Because of all the fighting, Morgan’s mother, Annie, ran away from home at an early age with a boy from across the tracks. One brother, Bruce, was committed to a mental institution at 14, when tranquilizers didn’t stop his temper tantrums. Another brother, Chuck, whose dyslexia went untreated, was instead sent to a school for the retarded until the day he was hit and killed by a car.
A ghoulish, generation-skipping reminder that life in suburbia in the Sixties wasn’t necessarily the idyllic utopia presented on TV shows like Leave It to Beaver.

Excellent (4 stars)
Unrated
Running time: 75 minutes
Studio: Gigantic Releasing

FYI: The public will be able to access the film for digital viewing at www.giganticdigital.com beginning Friday morning, February 20th at 10am Eastern. (This is the same day that it opens theatrically in New York.) The ticket price will be $2.99 for a 3-day, unlimited viewing ticket. The film will be streaming in up to HD quality (depending on the viewer's available bandwidth and hardware setup) and commercial-free.
To see a trailer for Must Read after My Death, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8phF9xpI7Jk

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Marriage 101: Building a Life Together by Faith

by Jewell R. Powell
Revell Books
Paperback, $13.99
252 pages, illustrated
ISBN: 978-0-8007-3332-2



Book Review by Kam Williams

“Most of us have heard what the acronym BIBLE stands for: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. The Bible gives us everything we need to make it in life, especially in our marriages… My prayer for everyone who reads this book is that the Word of God will come alive to you and cause you to want to change.
Marriage 101 was written for anyone who wants their marriage to be strong and healthy and is seeking a better relationship with their spouse. [It] is a combination book and workbook that is designed to help you examine areas in your life that need to be changed in order for you to have a successful and fulfilling marriage. By doing the exercises, you will begin to see God’s plan for your marriage.”
 Excerpted from the Preface (pages 10-11)

Most couples walk down the aisle fully expecting to live “happily-ever-
after” following the wedding, in much the way suggested by escapist Hollywood movies and your average fairy tale. But Jewell Powell is here to warn you that that state of bliss is very temporary, and that if you want your marriage to last you had better get right with God.
That is prevailing message of Marriage 101, a faith-based, self-help book laced with lots of biblical references and personal anecdotes. The author speaks from experience, as she is very forthcoming about the host of woes, including infertility, arguing, separate bedrooms, and even a trial separation, which unraveled her marital relationship until she and her husband, Lewis, made the Bible their marriage manual.
They finally reconciled for good after submitting to the will of Christ and coming to understand that “With God, nothing is impossible,” (Luke 1:37). And although their marriage still isn’t yet perfect, as Jewell describes it, “with each passing day it gets better and better.”
Presently, Jewell shares her secrets with other couples as a teacher, inspirational speaker and marriage coach. And now publishing this book is a means of her reaching even more folks who find their relationship in a state of distress or who are simply interested in strengthening a union by better connecting with their partner.
In an entertaining and challenging fashion, the author lays out her eight-part plan, using the tale of Sleeping Beauty “as a parable for a divine marriage plan.” Besides scriptures, the book is filled with plenty of helpful exercises likely to strengthen the foundation of Christian couples, provided both partners are motivated to enough to internalize these lofty spiritual ideals and put them into daily practice.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Frozen River DVD



DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Struggling Single-Moms Bond in Gritty Female Empowerment Flick

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) has just been abandoned again by her worthless husband who has both a gambling and substance abuse problem. So, the struggling mother of two has to support her five (James Reilly) and fifteen year-old (Charlie McDermoott) sons alone on the meager salary she makes working part-time at a dollar store.
This also means she’s suddenly in danger of losing the sizable down payment she’s already made on a new, double-wide mobile home. Consequently, the Eddy family is stuck in a relatively-tiny, drafty and dilapidaded trailer with water pipes prone to freezing. After all, this is a particularly-frigid Christmas season in upstate New York near the Canadian border.
While searching for her hubby at a local bingo hall, Ray finds his abandoned car and crosses paths with Lila (Misty Upham), a young Native-American woman in equally-desperate straits. Recently-widowed Lila has lost custody of her one year-old daughter and has turned to a life of crime to raise enough cash to get her baby back.
Taking advantage of the fact that she lives on a nearby Indian reservation which straddles the border between the United States and Canada, Lila has resorted to trafficking in human beings. For there is very good money waiting for anyone willing to risk their lives and jail by driving illegal aliens into the country across a frozen lake. That’s how Lila’s late husband died.
Even though they don’t trust one another, the two single-moms grudgingly bond and begin bringing Chinese and Pakistanis into America in the trunk of Ray’s car. However, the plot thickens as soon as the authorities catch wind of the operation and the question becomes whether the pair can make enough to retire before the ceiling falls in.
A gritty, super-realistic, female empowerment flick most memorable for Melissa Leo’s spellbinding, Oscar-nominated performance.

Excellent (4 stars)
Rated R for profanity.
Running time: 97 minutes
Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
DVD Extras: Commentary by director Courtney Hunt and producer Heather Rae.

Oscar Predictions 2009

Headline: The Envelope Please:
Who Will Win, Who Deserves to Win, Who Was Snubbed
by Kam Williams

Despite having garnered a whopping 13 nominations, Oscar night is going to be a big disappointment for fans of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button which will only win a few times and just in minor categories. Instead, the evening will belong to Slumdog Millionaire which I predict will win Best Picture and Best director, netting an impressive 7 Academy Awards overall, despite the fact that it isn’t up for anything in the acting categories.
The 81st Annual Academy Awards, hosted by Hugh Jackman at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, are set to air this Sunday, February 22nd on ABC-TV at 8 PM. Below, first I predict the winner in each category. Next, I say which among the nominees is actually the most deserving. And because so many great movies and performances are invariably overlooked, I also recognize several among those snubbed who were certainly worthy of Oscar consideration.


Best Picture

Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Slumdog is the prohibitive favorite. Benjamin Button has a puncher’s chance of a surprise knockout, although Milk is actually the second best of the bunch.
Deserves to Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Overlooked: The Dark Knight, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Secret Life of Bees, Burn after Reading


Best Director

Will Win: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)
In a category ordinary coupled with Best Picture, Boyle is the obvious pick, unless the Academy opts to recognize Fincher (Benjamin Button) for his body of work.
Deserves to Win: Danny Boyle
Overlooked: Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees), Joel and Ethan Coen (Burn after Reading)


Best Actor

Will Win: Sean Penn (Milk)
This is a difficult category to handicap this year, because Mickey Rourke is certainly the sentimental favorite, having revived his career by overcoming a host of personal problems similar to the character he portrayed in The Wrestler. Plus, he’s coming into the contest with all the momentum, having won the Golden Globe. But I say the Academy wises up and rewards the more deserving Sean Penn, even though he already has an Oscar on his mantle.
Deserves to Win: Sean Penn
Overlooked: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight), Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), Javier Bardem (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)


Best Actress

Will Win: Kate Winslet
Winslet wins because the Anglophilic Academy prefers to pick Brits, especially actress. Kate’s the only English actress nominated, so she wins. It’s as simple as that.
Deserves to Win: Melissa Leo (Frozen River)
Overlooked: Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky), Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire)


Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
I predicted this outcome when The Dark Knight was released way back in July, although the late Heath Ledger really belongs in the lead actor category, given how his spellbinding performance as The Joker overshadowed that of Christian Bale in the title role.
Deserves to Win: Heath Ledger
Overlooked: Brad Pitt (Burn after Reading), Tom Cruise (Tropic Thunder)


Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)
Penelope prevails even though she wasn’t even the best actress in Vicky Cristina. Here’s why she’ll still win: Viola Davis and Amy Adams split votes because they’re nominated for the same movie (Doubt). Davis also splits votes with Taraji Henson (Benjamin Button) because they’re both black. And Marisa Tomei’s chances are hurt by the fact that she already has an Oscar.
Deserves to Win: Viola Davis (Doubt)
Overlooked: Danai Jekesai Gurira (The Visitor), Alicia Keys (The Secret Life of Bees), Frances McDormand (Burn after Reading).


Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Milk
Deserves to Win: Frozen River
Overlooked: Burn after Reading, Vicky Cristina Barcelona


Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Deserves to Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Overlooked: The Dark Knight, The Secret Life of Bees


Best Documentary

Will Win: Man on Wire
Deserves to Win: Man on Wire
Overlooked: Hollywood Chinese, A Man Named Pearl, Standing Operating Procedure


Best Animated Feature

Will Win: Wall-E
Deserves to Win: Wall-E
Overlooked: Chicago 10


The Rest of Kam’s Predicted Winners:

Best Foreign Language Film: Waltz with Bashir
Best Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Film Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Art Direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Best Costume Design: The Duchess
Best Makeup: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Best Original Score: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Original Song: Slumdog Millionaire (“Jai Ho”)
Best Sound Editing: The Dark Knight
Best Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The International

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Owen and Watts Wasted in Overly-Ambitious Political Potboiler

Was Run Lola Run a fluke or what? When released a decade ago, that frenetic crime thriller landed on many a critic’s Top 10 List for 1999, present company included. But despite being subsequently afforded considerably-bigger budgets, German director Tom Twyker has never managed to make another movie which measures up to Lola either in terms of intensity or cinematic capture. Perhaps a perverse variation of The Peter Principle is coming into play, since Twyker appears to be over his head helming a Hollywood blockbuster as opposed to a modest, art house indie.
Case in point, The International, an overly-ambitious political potboiler starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. The film was shot on an array of exotic locations stretching from New York to London to Berlin to Potsdam to Milan to Istanbul. Plus, it features a life-size replica of the Guggenheim which provides the setting for a dizzying shootout inside the museum on its instantly-recognizable circular ramp.
The very timely plotline revolves around the efforts of Interpol Agent Louis Salinger (Owen) and Manhattan Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Watts) to crack an intercontinental money-laundering operation hatched somewhere inside a conglomerate called the International Bank of Business and Credit. Seems that the IBBC has cornered the market on small arms and is about to broker a deal between China and Middle East nations hostile to Israel for guided missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv.
The point of departure is Berlin where we find ready-to-rumble Salinger partnering-up with relatively-refined Whitman in the wake of the death of her partner (Ian Burfield) under suspicious circumstances. Turns out the dearly-departed wasn’t the first person investigating the IBBC to die in a freak accident or to disappear entirely.
What ensues is a globe-trotting game of cat-and-mouse which takes the pair to plenty of places where neither technically has jurisdiction to operate. After all, Salinger works for Interpol which in the real world is a fairly toothless outfit about a step above dogcatcher, while Whitman, as an attorney, isn’t even a law enforcement officer at all.
Nonetheless, he behaves like your classic gunslinging rogue who ignores the rules, much to the chagrin of the goons he bests with the help of cartoon physics and a body ostensibly impervious to bullets. And her job is to play the damsel-in-distress and to soothe the savage beast by cooing seductive questions like, “When was the last time you got laid?” which prompts the fairly predictable response “Why, are you offering?”
Perhaps because English is not the director’s native dialogue, much of what’s supposed to pass for credible dialogue has the characters talking in trite, fortune cookie-speak, such as “Sometimes, a man can meet his destiny on the road he took to avoid it” and “Sometimes, the hardest thing in life is knowing which bridge to cross.”
Yeah, and sometimes, a script is so pathetic, the picture should never have been greenlighted.

Fair (1 star)
Rated R for profanity and graphic violence.
Running time: 118 minutes
Studio: Columbia Pictures

To see a trailer for The International, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILj3HlaoOCg

High School Musical 3: Senior Year DVD

DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Third Installment in Review-Proof Kiddie Franchise Arrives on DVD

High School Musical 1 and 2 went straight to DVD where they were such a surprise hit that Disney decided to release the third installment in theaters. Similar to the Mouse House’s other red hot franchises, Hannah Montana and The Jonas Brothers, High School Musical is a review-proof enterprise certain to thrive regardless of what any snooty critics have to say.
HSM-3 will certainly resonate with its targeted preteen demographic, as its principal cast has returned for a sequel appropriately enhanced for the big screen. While the wafer-thin plotline will undoubtedly bore the pants off most adults, at least the wholesome material means it offers a family-friendly appeal.
The setting is again East High in Albuquerque, New Mexico where we find our leads near the end of their senior year and apprehensive about having to go their separate ways. But before their impending graduation arrives, the kids still need to finalize their college plans. Plus, they have to stage the annual, spectacular spring musical production, one they hope they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.
Each of the leads seems to have a little drama going on. Basketball star Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) would be excited about being accepted to play at the University of Albuquerque along with his best friend Chad Danforth (Corbin Bleu), except for the prospect of being a thousand miles away from the object of his affection, Stanford-bound Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens).
Meanwhile, Sharpay Evans (Asley Tisdale) finds herself in competition with a few classmates, including her brother, Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), for a single scholarship to Juilliard. Only Taylor McKessie (Monique Coleman) is already settled and will be matriculating at Yale in the fall.
Fans of the musical genre will enjoy how the film seizes on any excuse to have an ensemble break out into an song and dance ala a big Bollywood finale. But because it features lyrics like “Fame! Fortune! I want it all. I gotta have it!” it leaves you just a little concerned about whether this generation of tykes will grow up internalizing the narcissistic and materialistic messages contained in those dubious lyrics.

Excellent (4 stars)
Rated G
Running time: 117 minutes
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
2-Disc DVD Extras: Deleted scenes with director’s introductions, digitial copy, extended version of the movie, bloopers, a sing-a-long, cast goodbyes, and a couple of other featurettes.

To see a trailer for High School Musical 3, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEQXcbqvbT0

Friday, February 13, 2009

2009 NAACP Image Awards

by Kam Williams

Headline: Obama Dominates 40th Annual NAACP Image Awards

No, President Barack Obama was not actually present at the 40th Annual NAACP Image Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles February 12th, but so many folks were busy paying him props that he dominated the evening anyway. For instance, Tyler Perry, who co-hosted the event with the outfit-changing Halle Berry, announced early on that ”If there hadn’t been an N-A-A-C-P, there’d be no O-B-A-M-A,” spelling the latter’s’ letters out one-by-one. Later in the evening, Mr. Perry spoke about how the Obama victory made him more proud of “this,” pointing to his skin.
Standouts among the luminaries in attendance included lifetime achievement honorees Muhammad Ali, Russell Simmons and Al Gore. And still-grieving Jennifer Hudson not only took home a trio of trophies, but delivered a powerful performance as well. In the house was a Who’s Who of well-connected African-Americans in Hollywood, however, conspicuously absent were two nominees, R&B crooner Chris Brown and his girlfriend, the singer Rihanna. The couple has been keeping a low profile since he was recently arrested for allegedly assaulting her with his teeth and a deadly weapon.
As the closing credits rolled, Stevie Wonder brought the congregation to its feet with a spirited rendition of his classic “Black Man,” revising the lyrics to include a timely refrain about who else but Barack Obama!


Complete List of NAACP Image Award Winners

Film Categories

Best Picture - "The Secret Life of Bees"
Best Director - Gina Prince-Bythewood, "The Secret Life of Bees"
Best Actor - Will Smith, "Seven Pounds"
Best Actress - Rosario Dawson, "Seven Pounds Supporting Actor - Columbus Short, "Cadillac Records"
Supporting Actress - Taraji P. Henson, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Independent Film - "Slumdog Millionaire"
Documentary - "The Black List"
Foreign Film - "The Class"
Best Screenplay - Jenny Lumet, "Rachel Getting Married"

Television Categories

Best Comedy Series - "Tyler Perry's House of Payne"
Best Actor in a Comedy Series - LaVan Davis, "Tyler Perry's House of Payne"
Best Actress in a Comedy Series - Tracee Ellis Ross, "Girlfriends"
Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series - Lance Gross, "Tyler Perry's House of Payne"
Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series - Keshia Knight Pulliam, "Tyler Perry's House of Payne"
Best Dramatic Series - "Grey's Anatomy"
Best Actor in a Dramatic Series - Hill Harper, "CSI: NY"
Best Actress in a Dramatic Series - Chandra Wilson, "Grey's Anatomy"
Supporting Actor in a Dramatic Series - Taye Diggs, "Private Practice"
Supporting Actress in a Dramatic Series - Angela Bassett, "ER"
Made-for-TV Movie, Miniseries or Dramatic Special - "A Raisin in The Sun"
Best Actor in a Made-for-TV Movie, Miniseries or Dramatic Special -Sean Combs, "A Raisin in the Sun"
Best Actress in a Made-for-TV Movie, Miniseries or Dramatic Special - Phylicia Rashad, "A Raisin in the Sun"
Best Actor in a Sopa Opera - Bryton McClure, "The Young and the Restless"
Best Actress in a Sopa Opera - Debbi Morgan, "All My Children"
Best Director in a Dramatic Series - Ernest Dickerson, "Lincoln Heights - The Day Before Tomorrow"
Best Director in a Comedy Series - Kevin Sullivan, "30 Rock - MILF Island"
Best Screenplay for a Dramatic Series - Shonda Rhimes, "Grey's Anatomy: Freedom Part 1 & 2"
Best Screenplay for a Comedy Series - Erica D. Montolfo, "The Game: White Coats and White Lies"
News/Information Series or Special - "In Conversation: Michelle Obama Interview"
Talk Series - "The View"
Reality Series - "American Idol 7"
Variety Series or Special - "An Evening of Stars: Tribute to Smokey Robinson"
Children's Program - "Dora The Explorer"
Best Performance in a Children's Series or Special - Keke Palmer, "True Jackson"

Music Categories
Best Male Artist - Jamie Foxx
Best Female Artist - Beyonce’
Best New Artist - Jennifer Hudson Best Duo, Group or Collaboration - Jennifer Hudson, featuring Fantasia- "I'm His Only Woman"
Best Jazz Artist - Natalie Cole- "Still Unforgettable"
Best Gospel Artist - Mary Mary
Best World Music Album - Cheryl Keyes - "Let Me Take You There"
Best Music Video - "Yes We Can" - Will.i.am
Best Song - "Yes We Can" - Will.i.am
Best Album - Jennifer Hudson - "Jennifer Hudson"

Literary Categories
Fiction - "In the Night of the Heat: A Tennyson Hardwick Novel," Blair Underwood, Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes Nonfiction - "Letter to My Daughter," Maya Angelou Debut Author - "Barack, Race, and the Media: Drawing My Own Conclusion," David Glenn Brown Biography/Autobiography - "The Legs are the Last to Go," Diahann Carroll
Instructional - "32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business," Earvin "Magic" Johnson
Poetry - "Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of 'Poetry With a Beat' " Nikki Giovanni
Children - "Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope," Nikki Grimes (illustrator - Bryan Collier)
Youth/Teens - "Letters to a Young Sister: Define Your Destiny," Hill Harper

The Order of Myths DVD

DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: DVD Examines Still Segregated Mardi Gras Celebrations in Alabama

Judging from The Order of Myths, recent pronunciations of America as a post-racial society are a bit premature. For this eye-opening documentary, directed by Margaret Brown, matter-of-factly examines the still-segregated celebration of Mardi Gras staged annually in Mobile, Alabama since 1703, a full 15 years before New Orleans was even founded. The event has continued to be observed to this day, ostensibly oblivious to the inroads achieved by the Civil Rights Movement elsewhere in terms of integration.
Consequently, Mobile simultaneously mounts two elaborate Mardi Gras
Carnivals: one for blacks, one for whites. Ms. Brown never presumes to take an editorial stance on Mobile’s enduring color line, opting to allow the citizens’ words speak for themselves.
Not surprisingly, the Caucasians are rather comfortable with the arrangement, and generally suggest that the affairs are essentially “separate but equal.” They see the situation as simply a case of people choosing to associate with their own kind. As one salty cracker puts it, “Nobody’s going to tell me who’s going to come into my house. Black people have their own Mardi Gras and want it that way.”
Most of the African-Americans who appear on camera avoid controversy and certainly seem content with the status quo, but one can’t help but wonder whether they might be too intimidated to share their true feelings. Dr. Cain Hope Felder, a Professor at Howard University, is a glaring exception in this regard. He speaks freely about Mobile’s ugly legacy, including a lynching by a 19 year-old by the Klan as recently as 1981. He also notes that there’s a neighborhood known as Slave Town, which is where Africans brought by a slave ship settled in 1859, well after the trade was supposedly illegal.
At least the picture ends on an upbeat, with the black Mardi Gras King and Queen being announced and greeted by the white King and Queen and their Royal Court at their gathering. A nice gesture, but in the sequel I’d like to see these refined rednecks really shaken out of their comfort zone.
Next time, how about taking these folks north of the Mason-Dixon Line to see how the other half of the country lives before they miss out on the 21st Century entirely?

Excellent (4 stars)
Unrated
Running time: 80 minutes
Studio: New Yorker Video
Distributor: The Cinema Guild
DVD Extras: Director’s and cinematographer’s commentaries, Q&A with the director, Alabama premiere, deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer.

To see a trailer of The Order of Myths, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVv2Zc52Gek

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Changeling DVD

DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Eastwood DVD Revisits Mysterious 1928 Kidnapping

When a movie opens with an absolute assurance that what you’re about to watch is “A True Story” you certainly expect to see a drama far more credible than this patently absurd tale which doesn’t even pass the smell test.
Perhaps, if director Clint Eastwood had qualified the claim with words like “Based upon” or “Inspired by,” the picture’s preposterous premise might have been a bit easier to swallow.
The point of departure is March 9, 1928, which is when we are introduced to Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single-mom raising a nine year-old (Gattlin Griffith) in the City of Los Angeles. By profession, Christine roams around the floor of the phone company on roller skates as the supervisor of a bank of operators.
The plot thickens the fateful Saturday she agrees to fill-in for a co-worker, leaving little Walter home alone. By the time she returns after the shift, the boy has vanished without a clue, so she calls the police to file a missing persons report.
Several months later the cops claim to have solved the mystery, and announce that Walter’s been found alive and well. However, Christine’s hopes are soon dashed when the child returned to her is an impostor (Devon Conti) who is four inches short than her son.
Now, this is where the movie starts to make no sense. Instead of accepting the mother’s simple assertion that this was not her son, we’re led to believe the LAPD instead s pressured Christine to take custody of a perfect stranger. Doesn’t that sound inhuman?
And how long could a young impersonator keep up such a charade, even if he had wanted to? Wouldn’t the fraud have been exposed the first time “Walter” went out to play with his friends, visited relatives, greeted neighbors or went to school? Something doesn’t add up here.
A crime saga strictly for the very gullible, since it

Fair (1 star)
Rated R for profanity, violence and disturbing content.
Running time: 142 minutes
Studio: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
DVD Extras: “The Making of” featurette, plus a profile of Angelina Jolie and the real-life woman who inspired her character.

To see a trailer for Changeling, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57_t2BFZaK8

The Caller



Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Langella and Gould Look Lost in Lousy Cat-and-Mouse Caper

Writer/director Richard Leder was lucky enough to land a couple of lead actors of the caliber of Oscar-nominees in Elliot Gould (for Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) and Frank Langella (for Frost Nixon) along with Laura Harring (the fetching femme fatale in Mulholland Dr.) as the love interest only to squander their collective talents in service of a yawner. Don’t be deceived by The Caller’s promising premise which sounds intriguing enough on its face.
Set in New York City, the title character of this lame cat-and-mouse caper is Jimmy Stevens (Langella), the VP of an energy conglomerate which has for years successfully covered up a history of corrupt and malevolent behavior. He’s ostensibly become fed up with the dirty tricks and has decided to turn corporate whistleblower.
Jimmy hands over evidence to the authorities, knowing full well that it’s just a matter of time before his former colleagues figure out that he was the snitch. In the interim, over the phone, he anonymously retains the services of Private Eye Frank Turlotte (Gould) for two weeks to trail the hit man apparently hired to whack him.
But what Frank doesn’t know is that the detailed description he’s just been given matches that of Jimmy, not any contract killer. And exactly why has Jimmy orchestrated such an odd arrangement? Well, that aspect of this elliptical mystery would be unfair to divulge.
Suffice to say that after this intriguing setup, the story unfortunately meanders aimlessly for an hour to explore an assortment of ho-hum sidebars which prove to be red herrings. We meet the females in Jimmy’s life: his mother (Marion Servole), his girlfriend (Harring) and a precocious kid (Anabel Sosa) he rendezvous with daily on a park bench until the director finally puts us out of our misery by pulling a rabbit out of his cinematic hat during the denouement.
A caller you’ll want to put a block on.

Fair (1 star)
Unrated
In English and French with subtitles.
Running time: 92 minutes
Studio: Olive Press Cinema

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Kam's Kapsules: Weekly Previews That Make Choosing a Film Fun

OPENING THIS WEEK
Kam's Kapsules:
Weekly Previews That Make Choosing a Film Fun
by Kam Williams
For movies opening February 20, 2009


BIG BUDGET FILMS

Fired Up (PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, partying, partial nudity and pervasive crude humor) Teen comedy about a couple of high school’s football stars (Eric Christian Olsen and Nicholas D’Agosto) who hatch a plan to spend the summer at a camp filled with gorgeous girls by quitting the team to try out for the cheerleading squad instead. Cast includes Sarah Roemer, Philip Baker Hall, Molly Sims and Smith Cho.

Madea Goes to Jail (PG-13 for violence, sexual situations, mature themes and drug use) Tyler Perry’s back in drag for another madcap adventure which has the sassy, pistol-packing grandmother landing behind bars for anger management after leading police on a high-speed freeway chase. Ensemble cast includes Viola Davis, Derek Luke, Keisha Knight Pulliam and David and Tamela J. Mann.


INDEPENDENT & FOREIGN FILMS

Eleven Minutes (R for profanity) Flash-in-the-pan documentary chronicles the efforts of promising fashion designer Jay McCarroll to show his first line of clothing in New York following his win on Season One of the reality TV-show “Project Runway.”

Katyn (Unrated) World War II saga about the fallout visited upon four Polish families waiting for word of loved ones following the Soviet invasion which led to the slaughter of thousands of soldiers and citizens in the Katyn forest in 1940. (In Polish, Russian and German with subtitles)

Must Read after My Death (Unrated) Skeletons-out-of-the-closet documentary, directed by Morgan Mews, about his late grandparents’ miserable marriage marked by spousal abuse, infidelity and insanity. Warts-and-all bio-pic revisits dysfunctional relationship via tragic tapestry weaved courtesy of family photographs, 8mm home movies, candid audiotapes and granny’s intimate journals.

The Velveteen Rabbit (G) Screen adaptation of Margery Williams’ children’s classic features a mix of live-action and animation in a modern fairytale about a lonely little boy being who comes to grips about being raised by his strict grandfather with the help of a stuffed animal magically transformed into a real rabbit. Cast includes Jane Seymour, Tom Skerritt and Ellen Burstyn.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama

by Gwen Ifill
Doubleday Books
Hardcover, $24.95
288 pages, illustrated
ISBN: 978-0-385-52501-5



Book Review by Kam Williams

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
 Barack Obama, Election Day 2008

“Barack Obama’s success has changed attitudes. A majority of all voters said in a post election survey that the Obama victory would lead to improved race relations overall. [However] in four southern states – Aabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas – Obama did more poorly than John Kerry did four years ago...
During Reconstruction, there were as many as 16 black members of
Congress, but by 1901, black Southerners had been virtually expunged from politics, even as voters… Governing is complicated, so merely winning an election does not constitute the end of the battle.”
 Gwen Ifill, Excerpted from pages 237-245


The day before the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and
Sarah Palin last fall, Republican operatives attempted to swift boat the Obama campaign with an October surprise suggesting that PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill should be disqualified from moderating the event. Why? Because she was working on a book entitled The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.
However, no one in the McCain camp mentioned the fact that when they had approved her participation many months earlier they had been made well aware of Ms. Ifill’s upcoming literary project. But that didn’t stop them from mounting a futile, 11th hour effort to turn the tide by trying to impugn the integrity of this very highly-regarded journalist.
It is sad, that out of desperation, the Republicans would so recklessly play the race card to ruin the career of an African-American they knew to be non-partisan. Did they care where was she supposed to go to get her reputation back after the election was over?
Regardless, now that her literary debut has finally been published, it is clear that Gwen was, in fact, an honest broker and not a secret Obama cheerleader. And Ifill doesn’t restrict herself to a discussion of just Obama, but devotes considerable attention to the recent rise of the rest of the crop of emerging, young black leaders, including Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, Washington, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, Tennessee’s Harold Ford and many others.
More importantly, her timely tome contains a cogent, historical analysis of the evolution of U.S. politics along the color line. Curiously, Ifill indicates that what these inspired, young Democrats have in common, besides their party affiliation, is an impatience to implement a colorblind agenda decidedly different from that of the aging Civil Rights Movement generation.
Ultimately, the author has some tough questions to pose, such as “What is the point of electing African-Americans to high office if their ties to the black community do not bind them tightly enough to black causes?” An added bonus is that Ifill is generous enough to include a few personal anecdotes which reveal a very likable, intimate side her fans never get to see on TV.
Did she vote for Obama? Her dedication of the book says it all: “For my parents, Oliver and Eleanor Ifill, who did not live to see the day.” An excellent deconstruction of the state of American politics by a seasoned reporter with not only access to the pivotal players but also a knack for picking their brains in a way which gets to the heart of any issue.

Monday, February 9, 2009

W. DVD

DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Damning DVD from Oliver Stone Chronicles Bush’s Failings

Oliver Stone has never been afraid to court controversy, and this bio-pic is no exception. The iconoclastic director has made presidential docudramas before (JFK and Nixon), but W. is the first about one still in office.
This incendiary offering is apt to be appreciated or reviled along party lines for it paints a most unflattering picture of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) as a spoiled-rotten nincompoop who has been a miserable failure at his every endeavor. For, once it breezes past his early adult years frittered away as a boozing, womanizing embarrassment to his family, it settles down to focus on his copious shortcomings, first, as a businessman, and then as a politician.
Along the way, we’re treated mostly to W’s familiar fiascos, such as his much-publicized, ill-fated forays into the oil and baseball businesses. So, the movie doesn’t really make any new revelations, unless you were unaware that he got a girl pregnant, was arrested for drunk driving and has been a bitter disappoint to his father (James Cromwell), former president George Herbert Walker Bush.
The film is at its best only after a Born Again Junior cleans up his act, marries Laura (Elizabeth Banks), and makes the fateful decision to enter politics. Once he ascends to the presidency, we find him surrounded in the White House by a cast of infamous characters including Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Vice President Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Dr. Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), Secretary of State Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and CIA Director George Tenet (Bruce McGill).
What makes the story fascinating at this juncture is that it takes a “fly-on-the-wall” approach to confirm the country’s worst fears about the shady shenanigans among members of the administration. For example, we see Rove as the ever-scheming brains behind the throne while Cheney is exposed as a power-hungry maniac who felt that the Patriot Act didn’t go far enough. Rice, Powell and Tenet are presented as weak-kneed sycophants who consciously compromised their integrity by beating the drums of war, knowing full well that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
Still, the worst criticism is reserved for Bush, who is positioned as a clueless chimpleton-in-chief more than willing to hand the reigns of government over to his vice president so he could be free to eat junk food and watch sports on TV. A damning biography magnifying the worst traits of the president with the lowest approval rating in history.

Very Good (3 stars)
Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexual references, smoking, alcohol abuse and disturbing war images.
Running time: 129 minutes
Studio: Lions Gate Home Entertainment
DVD Extras: Director’s audio commentary, filmmaker’s research and annotations guide, plus a featurette examining the Bush legacy.

To see a trailer for W., visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNj2yOKeKSw