Sunday, January 31, 2010

Life's Passing Me By

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Single Girl Shares Sage Advice in Serendipitous NYC Drama

Dora Allen (Paula Wilson) is blessed with a special talent, namely, the ability to offer anybody just the right relationship advice they’re looking for. Even strangers, like a bus driver or another passenger, can sense that she’s a human whisperer of sorts, so they are prompted to dump their personal problems on her lap impulsively.

This state of affairs might be all well and good if only Dora’s own relationships were simultaneously flourishing. But she’s been so busy attending to the emotional needs of others that she’s neglected the disaster that her life has become.

First of all, she’s not on speaking terms with her sister, Karen (Julienne Irons), perhaps because of the incestuous mess she created by dating her ex-boyfriend, Kevin (Booker T. Washington). A product of a broken mixed-marriage, Dora doesn’t get along with her black mother (Sydney Chase) who’d like to bury the hatchet, or with her white dad (Clyde Baldo) who has a bad habit of making inappropriate comments. For example, he made her very uncomfortable to have to watch him and her best friend, Myra (Antonia Marrero), flirting with each other at Karen’s surprise birthday party.

So unfolds Life's Passing Me By, a delightful, character-driven sit-dram set all around New York City. The movie marks the feature-length directorial debut of School of Visual Arts grad Mark Cabaroy, who somehow shot his movie on a shoestring budget of just $700. Cabaroy coaxed a number of inspired performances out of a cast of virtual unknowns, starting with Paula Wilson who is nothing short of brilliant in the pivotal role of Dora.

The story is unpredictable and so engaging that you quickly forget the low production values as you become immersed in the plight of the members of the motley ensemble. Good enough to earn the #3 spot on my annual Blacktrospective’s Best Independent Films list last year, Life's Passing Me By is a flick well-deserving of a distributor for a theatrical run in 2010.

An alternately entertaining and thought-provoking, irreverent romp ultimately revealed as the sort of rare cinematic jewel which makes my job a joy.

Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 88 Minutes
Studio: iMarkFilms
Distributor: NewFilmmakers

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Preacher's Kid

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Prodigal Daughter Learns Valuable Life Lessons in Moralizing Melodrama

As the only child of an overprotective, widowed father, Angie King (Letoya Luckett) almost couldn’t help but feel smothered. But when you factor in her dad’s being both a preacher and a pillar of the community in their tight-knit community in Augusta, Georgia, you’ve got a serious recipe for rebellion. Thus far, the 23 year-old virgin has devoted herself to the needs of her asthmatic father, between singing in the choir, ministering around the ‘hood and attending services several times a week.
However, everything changes the day Angie decides to run away not to join the circus but a Tyler Perry-esque travelling troupe passing through town, a supposedly spiritually-oriented outfit putting on a faith-based fable featuring Aunt Bebe, a trash-talking character played by a big dude (Carlos Davis) in a dress. For she has developed an instant crush on the show’s suave star, Devlin (Durrell Tank Babbs), a Romeo well versed in the art of seduction.
When informed of this sudden development, disapproving Bishop King (Gregalan Williams) disowns his disappointed daughter on the spot. Yet, she still leaves town with dreams of not only winning Devlin’s heart but of landing a role in the theater group’s next musical production.
Needless to say, a very rocky road lies ahead of Angie, starting with her initially being denied an audition by an impatient director who calls her deaf, dumb and stupid. And just when the promoter (Clifton Powell) is about to send her packing on the proverbial midnight train back to Georgia, Devlin intervenes on her behalf like a knight in shining armor.
Given a second chance, Angie impresses the producers sufficiently to be retained as an understudy to the female lead. While this might give the aspiring Gospel singer’s career a much-needed boost, it also makes her beholden to devilish Devlin, who soon proves to be a two-timing, physically-abusive creep.
So, unfolds Preacher's Kid, a cautionary tale written and directed by Stan Foster. It’s not very hard to anticipate the arc of this Christian-oriented message movie which tends to telegraph most of its punches. Nonetheless, it’s well-enough executed, especially for a flick on a modest budget, to forgive the low production values and a tendency towards melodrama.
The payoff arrives after Prodigal Daughter Angie has learned some tough lessons and returns to ask her father for forgiveness, allowing for a moving moment of mutual redemption.

Very Good (2.5 stars)
Rated PG-13 for mature themes, sexuality, violence and brief drug use.
Running time: 110 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Premiere/Gener8xion Entertainment

The Edge of Darkness

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Mel Gibson Resurrects Career in Remake of BBC Mini-Series

Mel Gibson might be looking a little long in the tooth, but he hasn’t lost a step in terms of his acting chops, judging by The Edge of Darkness, a remake of the 6-hour BBC mini-series of the same name first broadcast in 1985. The setting has been shifted from Britain to Boston, where the film unfolds in a fashion similar to such samples of the emerging gritty, Beantown-based crime genre as Mystic River (2003), The Departed (2006), Gone Baby Gone (2007) and What Doesn’t Kill You (2008).

This saga starts with the murder of a veteran homicide detective’s daughter right in front of her father. 24 year-old Emma Craven (Bojana Novakovic) was a recent MIT grad with a promising career doing scientific research for a company called Northmoor when she was shot to death in the doorway of her dad’s home.

Initially, everyone assumes that Thomas Craven (Gibson) was the intended target, since he was standing next to Emma at the time of the drive-by. And, in true Dirty Harry style, Tom opts to go rogue when his boss tries to take him off the case.

Craven soon discovers that something is suspicious when a lock he saved of his late daughter’s hair sets off a Geiger counter. The search for more clues about how she might have become exposed to highly radioactive material,leads to her job at Northmoor Corporation which was secretly involved in some shady nuclear defense contracts with the U.S. government.

As it turns out, Emma is just the latest in a string of activist whistleblowers to end up the unfortunate victim of a state-sanctioned hit. But with a U.S. Senator (Damian Young), a CIA Agent (Ray Winstone) and Northmoor’s CEO (Danny Huston) all collaborating to cover-up the killings, it looks unlikely that Craven will be able to crack the conspiracy.

Directed by Martin Campbell who also handed the original TV version, The Edge of Darkness is a political potboiler/revenge flick featuring an uneven mix of hokey sentiment (ala the ghost of Emma intermittently appearing to daddy) and two-fisted fare (ala Gibson kicking butt). Not surprisingly, the latter works, the former doesn’t, although it never gets so sappy as to undermine the overall effort.

A cross of The Lovely Bones and No Way Out, only in Bostonese!

Very Good (2.5 stars)
Rated R for profanity and graphic violence.
Running time: 117 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Brothers

Friday, January 29, 2010

Obama’s State of the Union Speech: An Oscar-Worthy Performance

by Kam Williams

“No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."
--George Orwell, Animal Farm

The novel Animal Farm was crafted by George Orwell as a dire warning about the potential abuse of power through the manipulation of language as a subtle means of mind control. The cautionary tale’s prophetic message was that the masses might be very gullible to the seductive rhetoric of a charismatic visionary capable of masking more Machiavellian intentions. Listening to President Obama’s soporific double-speak during his State of the Union address the other night reminded me of the climax of Orwell’s chilling morality play, when the animals belatedly wised up too late to differentiate between their newly-elected leaders and the evil exploiters they had sought to replace.
In the case of Obama, there had been many telling signs from the very beginning that he was a conservative in progressive’s clothing. When he praised Ronald Reagan and criticized Affirmative Action in his best-seller…When he said he could no more disown Reverend Wright than his racist grandmother only to distance himself from the controversial minister a month later when it became politically expedient to do so... When he opted out of the public campaign finance system after pledging to abide by the federal spending limits...
The worst was when, shortly before the Presidential election, he supported the billion-dollar bank bailout based on outgoing Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson still unsubstantiated claim that otherwise Western Civilization would collapse. There was never really a question of liquidity but one of greed, entitlement, and a lack of faith in the free market.
Nonetheless, Obama’s yea vote rewarding failure and subsidizing mistakes exposed him as a useful idiot, a corporate tool more concerned about the plight of Wall St. than Main Street, his stern talk about passing stricter banking regulations notwithstanding. (Where are they?) Since his supposedly heartfelt determination to come to the rescue of working-class people was never accompanied by his taking steps to implement any tangible relief measures, then his true intention ostensibly was never to do so. After all, he had no problem handing the banking, automotive and insurance industries additional taxpayer funds as his first order of business as Chief Executive.
Thus, the actual Obama economic philosophy can best be described as the privatizing of profit and the socializing of risk. Yet, with his approval rating sinking to a new low, the black community remains his most staunchly loyal constituency. Can anyone explain to me why, when this is the demographic he takes most for granted?
We urgently need help from the White House, not another speech from a smooth-talking snake-oil salesman, a year after Wall St. got theirs. I suspect that African-Americans continue to sit patiently because he’s black and can mimic Martin Luther King’s incantation when delivering false assurances that health care, education, housing and jobs are high on his agenda.
There is little hope, if we are so naïve as to allow Obama’s ethnicity to trump the cold, hard truth that he’s simply decided to throw the poor under the bus. What is the purpose of authentic human interaction if we are willing to reinforce the color line even to our own detriment?
What’s the State of the Union? It’s in the hands of an unprincipled, drive-by president who’s playing the black community so well that he deserves an Oscar, not a Nobel Peace Prize.

Kam Williams is a syndicated film and book critic, and a member of the NJ, NY, CT, PA, MA & US Supreme Court bars.

The End of Poverty?

Film Review by Kam Williams


Headline: Globalization Documentary Discusses Paradox of Poverty in Era of Unparalleled Wealth


                     Why have so many Third World countries remained impoverished and underdeveloped even after gaining their independence from the European nations which had conquered and colonized them? This is the basic question addressed by The End of Poverty, an incendiary expose’ directed by Philippe Diaz. In essence, this damning documentary is a history lesson about the ugly underbelly of Western Civilization from 1492 up to the present.

                     For not long after Columbus “discovered” America, European countries began descending on the so-called New World, using both the bullet and the Bible to bend assorted indigenous peoples to their will. The Dutch focused primarily on Asia while the English assured themselves that the sun would never set on the ever-expanding British Empire. Even the Pope got into the act, awarding Africa to Portugal and South America to Spain by papal decree.

                     The basic thesis of the luminaries lending their insights to this thought-provoking project is that for 500+ years, white people have extracted the resources and oppressed the natives living in lands located in the planet’s Southern hemisphere. And that unfair economic relationship never changed substantially at the end of the era of colonization, since in most countries a handful of families continued to own the bulk of the business interests and the majority of productive real estate.

                     Former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson indicts that Agency for serving as the private army of a succession of American presidents. He specifically alleges that the CIA was behind the assassination of a long list of populist leaders, like Lumumba in the Congo, Arbenz in Guatemala, Roldos in Ecuador, Torrijos in Panama, Qasim in Iraq and Mossadek in Iran. Similarly, John Perkins, author of “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” owns up to his role in the overthrow of numerous Third World rulers in order to replace them with corrupt puppets handpicked by the U.S.

                     The situation has degenerated to the point where over a billion people around the world are currently trying to survive on less than a dollar a day, and their prospects are only getting worse, given that the ownership of natural resources has become increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. In concluding, the picture suggests that this imbalance can only be corrected if the poor rise up and insist on reforms like the nationalization of land, mineral and water rights, and the taxation of the $11.5 trillion hidden by the rich in offshore accounts.

                     Solutions seemingly incompatible with capitalism, an economic system dependent on escalating expansionism and the incessant exploitation of cheap labor. So, why does poverty persist in the midst of unparalleled wealth? In a word, greed!


Excellent (4 stars)


In English, Spanish, Portuguese and French with subtitles.

Running time: 106 minutes

Studio: Cinema Libre Studio

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Zombieland DVD



DVD Review by Kam Williams


Headline: Amusement Park Horror Comedy Arriving on DVD


                With Mad Cow disease having turned most of humanity into a cannibalistic race of mutant zombies, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) opts to travel from Texas to Ohio to check on his parents. The only reason the neurotic college student is among the few people still uninfected is because he’s so neurotic he never left his dorm room while the epidemic swept across campus. Now, as the nerdy weakling begins the dangerous trek home, it doesn’t look like he’s likely to last long battling the bloodthirsty marauders, even though he has prepared a helpful list of dos and don’ts.

Lucky for him, he soon crosses paths with his polar opposite on the macho scale, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), an alpha male with a muscle car and no qualms about killing to survive. Tallahassee has quite an arsenal at his disposal, weapons ranging from guns to bats to hedge clippers for snapping off the heads of the walking dead. However, since he’s starving and craving Hostess’ Twinkies, his first order of business is to raid an abandoned supermarket.

There, the two encounter Wichita (Emma Stone) and her younger sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), streetwise teens who steal the guys’ auto. But a little further up the road, conceding that there’s strength in numbers, the girls have a change of heart and pick the boys back up. Then, the quartet decides to drive westward to Hollywood where an abandoned amusement park is rumored to be zombie-free.

This is the engaging-enough premise of Zombieland, a splatter screamfest which generates far more mirth than tension. For, never do you get the sense that the picture’s motley crew might not survive their harrowing ordeal. Instead, you tend to focus on the comically creative variety of ways in which the four fight the swarming hordes of carnivorous creatures.

                Zombies as good clean fun, I mean, good messy fun!


Very Good (3 stars)

Rated R for profanity and gory violence.

Running time: 88 minutes

Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

DVD Extras: Deleted scenes, commentary by the director, the scriptwriters and actors Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg, visual f/x progression scenes, a “Behind-the-Scenes” featurette and theatrical trailers.

Law Abiding Citizen DVD



DVD Review by Kam Williams


Headline: Jamie Foxx Cat-and-Mouse Thriller Comes to DVD


Burglars Clarence James Darby (Christian Stolte) and Rupert Ames (Josh Stewart) both broke into the suburban Philadelphia home of Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) and forced him to sit and watch helplessly as they brutally murdered his wife (Brooke Mills) and daughter (Ksenia Hulayev). However, only one of the perps had to pay for the crime, since the former was permitted to turn state’s evidence and testify against the latter under the terms of a plea deal which let him off with a slap on the wrist.

 Consequently, Clarence was set free while his co-conspirator was sentenced to death and executed by lethal injection. This outcome made perfect sense to most of the people in the courtroom, such as the Judge (Annie Corley), the District Attorney (Bruce McGill), Prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) and his assistant, Sarah (Leslie Bibb), but it never sat well with Clyde, the victim of the crime.

 So, he set about methodically planning to exact a measure of retribution. For, what nobody suspected was that this mild-mannered family man secretly happened to be a retired CIA Agent/assassin/genius inventor/mad scientist all rolled into one, which means he’s the wrong guy to make into an enemy.

 Thus, this “Law Abiding Citizen” has morphed into a bloodthirsty vigilante with a hit list containing the names of Clarence and everyone he considers responsible for a guilty man still being able to walk the streets. What ensues is a gruesome splatter flick ostensibly designed to up the ante in terms of the revenge genre’s generous helpings of gratuitous gore.

 As suavely played by Gerard Butler, Clyde proves to be an increasingly-unsympathetic cross of Hannibal Lecter and Paul Kersey, the obsessed protagonist played by Charles Bronson in the Death Wish franchise. It is easy to understand why he might want to behead Clarence after first castrating the creep with a scalpel, but he begins to lose my support when he subsequently sets his sights on the legal community.

 A high-octane, high body-count thriller posing the question, how do you stop a psycho vigilante on a killing spree? Apparently, by any means necessary.


Very Good (2.5 stars)

Rated R for graphic violence, rape, torture and pervasive profanity.

Running time: 109 minutes

Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment

DVD Extras: Audi commentary and a “Behind-the-Scenes” featurette.

More Than a Game DVD



DVD Review by Kam Williams


Headline: DVD Revisits LeBron’s Formative Years


Most people only know LeBron James the basketball phenom who went straight from high school to the NBA and became the youngest MVP in the history of the league. However, few are aware of how challenging a childhood he had to overcome en route to the pros, being raised by a young single-mom.

 In fact, Lebron moved about a dozen times between the ages of 5 and 8, living in some of the worst projects around Akron, Ohio. Fortunately, his financially-struggling mother, Gloria, had the good sense to let her son stay with his coach’s family until she was able to provide him with a stable home situation.

 LeBron ended up forming what would prove to be lifelong bonds during his formative years, first while playing in an AAU league and later while attending St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. For over that period, he had the same teammates: Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis, Willie McGee and Sian Cotton. Consequently, as LeBron reminisces, “It was basketball, but it was more like friendship than anything.”

 Furthermore, they were coached by Dru’s father, a practical role model who impressed upon them from the outset that basketball was “more than a game.” LeBron and company took that message to heart, cultivating not only character, individually, but a chemistry and cohesiveness, collectively, which would stand the test of time.

 That tight-knit squad enjoyed unparalleled success on the court, including the national championship title. Yet, this moving documentary focuses as much on their achievements away from the sport to drive home more important points about the value of loyalty, persistence and integrity in overcoming any adversity.

 And although LeBron was obviously the star of the team, the picture devotes equal time to all the members, each of whom had his own cross to bear. Along the way, we learn that Willie was raised by his big brother, because both of his parents were drug addicts; that diminutive Dru had a short kid’s complex; that Romeo had anger management issues; and that Gentle Giant Sian struggled to outgrow his clumsiness.

 At heart, an inspirational bio-pic about the transcendent magic of friendship forged in pursuit of hoop dreams.


Excellent (4 stars)

Rated PG for mild epithets and smoking.

Running time: 100 minutes

Studio: Lions Gate Home Entertainment

DVD Extras: Featurettes entitled “More Than a Film, “Behind the Music” and “Winning Ways: A Look inside Sports Psychology.”

For My Father (ISRAELI)

(Sof Shavua B’Tel Aviv)
Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Terrorist and Jew as Starcrossed Lovers in Tel Aviv’s Answer to Romeo and Juliet

Tarek (Shredi Jabarin) is a celebrated star on a Palestinian soccer team. But because his father has brought disgrace upon the family by collaborating with the Israelis, the young man has reluctantly decided to serve as a suicide bomber to show their neighbor-haters in Nazarene that everything is copacetic, at least in terms of being bona fide, radical Muslims.
So, after having enough plastic explosives strapped to his chest to blow himself and all the shoppers at an outdoor market to smithereens, he sets out for the city of Tel Aviv. En route, he is reminded by his unconvinced chauffeur, Abed (Jony Arbid), that the vest will detonate, if he tries to remove it. Furthermore, he is informed that his parents will be killed if the mission is aborted. And just in case he gets cold feet, Abed even has a cell phone which can set off the device via remote control.
After bidding Abed adieu, Tarek finds a plaza packed with Jews, but only ends up frustrated when he squeezes the trigger and nothing happens. Following several attempts, he ventures to a repair shop where he is befriended by Katz (Shlomo Vishinsky), its cantankerous, but soft-hearted proprietor. Katz, obviously unaware of the planned use for the malfunctioning switch, offers to order the part, and tells Tarek to come back in a couple days.
To kill time before his date with destiny and 77 virgins, the walking IED saunters over to the kiosk of Keren (Hili Yalon), a 17 year-old rebel who’s been disowned by her Hassidic family. She’s being shunned for refusing to dress modestly, wear a wig and generally abide by the dictates of their orthodox traditions.
By coincidence, a couple of creepy thugs, Avinoam (Amir Yerushalmi) and Shlomi (Michael Moshonov), show up at the shop simultaneously to pressure her to accompany them to a synagogue for a meeting with her parents. But despite having not made any friends or much money since running away, Keren refuses. And when the toughs try to twist her arm, Tarek intervenes physically like a knight in shining armor. The goons retreat with their tails between their legs, leaving Keren smitten with Tarek and eager to get better acquainted.
As they start spending some quality time together, he hides the truth about why he’s in town. Sparks fly, and a lazy bike ride through the countryside leads to the proverbial long walk along the shore at sunset. However, just when romance is on the verge of blossoming, Tarek is reminded by increasingly urgent phone calls from Abed that he’s there to wreak havoc not to make whoopee.
Will these star-crossed lovers ditch their respective repressive religions and intolerant associates to prove to the world that Jews and Palestinians are capable of not merely coexisting but of copulating as well? This is the question which For My Father urgently attempts to address with the specter of an imminent blast always hanging over our shamelessly-flirtatious protagonists’ heads.
Kudos to director Drod Zahavi for managing to present what undoubtedly reads like a patently preposterous plotline in a plausible fashion. A melodramatic morality play which sends the sobering message that suicide bombing does not pay, especially when you could just as easily seduce as splatter the sexy object of your detonation.

Very Good (3 stars)
In Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles.
Running time: 100 Minutes
Distributor: Film Movement

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

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

Kam's Kapsules:
Weekly Previews That Make Choosing a Film Fun
by Kam Williams
For movies opening February 5, 2010


Dear John (PG-13 for sensuality and violence) Channing Tatum stars in the title role of this bittersweet romance drama about a soldier who comes to regret reenlisting after 9-11 when the high school sweetheart (Amanda Seyfried) who promised to wait for him instead sends him a letter informing him that she’s engaged to another guy (Henry Thomas). With Richard Jenkins, Luke Benward and Scott Porter.

From Paris with Love (R for graphic violence, pervasive profanity, drug use and brief sexuality) Political potboiler about an American spy (John Travolta) who joins forces with a low-level employee (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) of the U.S. embassy to prevent a terrorist attack in Paris. (In English and French with subtitles)


Ajami (Unrated) Ethnic tensions abound in this “Crash”-like, slice-of-life ensemble drama examining around the deteriorating state of Palestinian-Jewish relations in the ancient, Israeli seacoast city of Jaffa. Cast includes Fouad Habash, Nisrine Haban and Elias Saba. (In Arabic and Hebrew with subtitles)

District 13: Ultimatum (R for profanity, violence and drug use) David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli buddy-up for another futuristic adventure featuring action-packed, acrobatic hijinks in an impoverished Parisian ‘hood. This installment revolves around the pair’s attempt to breakup a heroin ring being protected by corrupt cops and high powered politicians. (In French with subtitles)

Falling Awake (R for violence, pervasive profanity and brief sexuality) Romantic musical about an ambitious, young guitarist (Andrew Cisneros) determined to play his way out of his crime-infested Bronx ‘hood with the help of his beautiful girlfiend from Brooklyn (Jenna Dewan). With Nestor Serrano, Julie Carmen and Chris “Kazi” Rolle.

Frozen (R for profanity and disturbing images) Bone-chilling thriller about three desperate snowboarders (Kevin Zegers, Emma Bell and Shawn Ashmore) facing the specter of frostbite and freezing to death after they’re accidentally stranded on a ski lift during frigid weather at a resort that’s just closed for a week.

Terribly Happy (Unrated) Crime thriller about a Copenhagen cop (Jakob Cedergren) who is reassigned after suffering a nervous breakdown to a small town only to end up at odds with the local bully (Kim Bodnia), a wife beater with a flirtatious wife (Lena Maria Christensen). (In Danish with subtitles)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Off and Running

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Adoptees Identity Issues Examined by Blended-Family Documentary

When Tovah Klein emigrated from Israel to the United States, she met and fell in love with Midwesterner Travis Cloud. The smitten lesbians subsequently settled in a trendy section of Brooklyn together where they would raise their three adopted children as Jews, sending them to Hebrew school.
What might strike some as strange about this arrangement is that none of the kids had a Jewish background. Rafi, of mixed-ethnicity, was born drug-addicted and with an STD, while his slightly younger sister Avery’s parents were African-Americans from Texas, and little Zay-Zay was a cuddly, Korean orphan.
As visually-diverse as the models in a United Colors of Benetton ad, this blended family is the subject of Off and Running, a daring documentary marking the directorial debut of Nicole Opper. It doesn’t take long for the viewer to get past their striking superficial differences and to appreciate the fact that the Klein-Clouds are nonetheless a very close, considerate and loving clan.
Then, just when you’re starting to think of the household as being as
picture-perfect as Leave It to Beaver, the camera starts to reveal some rather emotionally gut-wrenching goings-on. For although Avery is a high school track star with a promising future, she has trouble keeping her nose to the proverbial grindstone, between being boy crazy and curious about the possibility of meeting her birth mother.
After all, she’s begun to struggle with her identity, since most people see her as black, not white and Jewish, even though she’s never been exposed to African-American culture. The dilemma leads to an existential crisis, which puts a severe strain on the whole family.
Rafi, by contrast, seems to have made peace with his lot in life, and is focused more on his future than in piecing together any mysteries about his past. The 6 foot tall, green-eyed senior is applying to college and hopes to study molecular biology and play guitar at Princeton. Zay-Zay is spared much in the way of microscopic emotional inspection, serving more as a frustrated observer of his big sister’s self-destructive antics.
Ultimately uplifting, this endearing bio-pic offers a wonderful warts-and-all look from the inside out at both the blessings and challenges of trans-cultural adoption.

Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 76 Minutes
Distributor: First Run Features

The New Jim Crow (BOOK REVIEW)

The New Jim Crow:
Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
By Michelle Alexander
The New Press
Hardcover, $27.95
304 pages
ISBN: 978-1-59558-103-7

Book Review by Kam Williams

“Precisely how the system of mass incarceration works to trap African-Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage can best be understood by viewing the system as a whole… The first stage is the roundup [when] vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color…
Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty, whether they are or not. Once convicted… virtually every aspect of one’s life is regulated and monitored by the system.
The final stage… often [has] a greater impact on one’s life course than the months or years one actually spends behind bars. [Parolees] will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives—denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Unable to surmount these obstacles, most will eventually return to prison and then be released again, caught in a closed circuit of perpetual marginality.”

-- Excerpted from Chapter 5 (pgs. 180-181)

Now that bloom has fallen off the rose of the Obama Administration, most black folks are beginning to wake up to the fact that his election isn’t about to turn the country into a post-racial utopia any time soon. To the contrary, attorney Michelle Alexander argues that in recent decades America has increasingly, and ever so subtly, adopted a color-coded caste system where minorities are targeted, stigmatized and marginalized by the criminal justice system.
Alexander, a Professor of Law at Ohio State University, makes her very persuasive case in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a scathing indictment of the widespread practice of selective enforcement of draconian drug laws. Ostensibly, the aim of the U.S. government has been not only to warehouse masses of African-American males behind bars, but to relegate them permanently to a subordinate stratum of society even after they’re paroled.
For the author explains that upon release, a person convicted of a petty narcotics violation “may be ineligible for many federally-funded health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, and federal assistance.” Furthermore, “His driver’s license may be automatically suspended, and… he will not be permitted to enlist in the military… or obtain a federal security clearance. If a citizen, he may lose the right to vote; if not, he becomes immediately deportable.”
Although there’s a black man in the White House, Ms. Alexander expects her call for prison reform to fall on deaf ears. After all, she cites as “disturbing, to say the least,” Obama’s famous Father’s Day speech in which he in which he indicted AWOL baby-daddies “without ever acknowledging that the majority of young black men in large urban areas are currently under the control of the criminal justice system.”
This sister obviously has some serious issues with the President, since she also reminds her readers about his confessing to snorting coke all the coke he could afford and to smoking pot frequently during his wayward youth. She does s because she feels he ought to be more empathetic about the plight of the millions of African-Americans whose lives were ruined after being found guilty only of the same sort of transgressions he freely owned up to in his autobiography.
If Alexander holds any hope for our future, it rests in raising the country’s collective consciousness about the role the Apartheid-like legal system plays in perpetuating oppression along the color line. Her goal is to achieve this by generating some frank dialogue which might lead to a social movement on behalf of the vast underclass of unfairly-criminalized social pariahs.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Soledad O'Brien: The Haiti Relief Effort Interview

with Kam Williams

Headline: Soledad’s Eyewitness Report on the Haitian Relief Effort

In the wake of the Haitian earthquake, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien rushed to the region to deliver the same sort of high-quality, eyewitness coverage that she has dependably broadcast in the past on location after location from such disasters area as the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Because of her seemingly effortless style and her People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People List looks, what tends to get lost about this intrepid, Emmy-winning reporter is that she’s also a Harvard grad with a keen intellect, a razor sharp wit, a great sense of humor and an ever-inquiring mind.
I’ve interviewed a bunch of bright people in my day and, trust me, Soledad might very well be the brightest. You’ll instantly see what I mean, if you ever have the pleasure of engaging her in conversation one-on-one. Until then, I hope that this revealing tete-a-tete about the Haiti relief effort effectively conveys the essence of her brilliant mind and very likable spirit.
Soledad is never one to shy away from a difficult or probing question, but is rather refreshingly frank and forthcoming in addressing in considerable depth whatever issue she’s asked to address. That’s the reason I sought her out in the first place to get the scoop on what’s really happening in Haiti.
Keep in mind that this interview was conducted soon after her return to the States, while she was cooking for and frequently distracted by a house full of rambunctious kids, and she even paused briefly from our conversation to pull one of her 5 year-old twin’s baby teeth, all without ever missing a beat.

Kam Williams: Hi, Soledad, thanks again for the time.
Soledad O’Brien: Hey, how’re you doing? I hope you don’t mind but the kids are running around so we might have some interruptions. The conversation’s definitely going to be like that from my end. That was Charlie [one of her 5 year-old twins] who answered the phone.
KW: Of course, I understand. The kids missed mommy while she was away, and now they come first.
SO: Cool!
KW: Well, I guess my first question is, how’s Haiti?
SO: Haiti’s a mess for a host of reasons: because it’s historically never been given a chance, because it currently has no real infrastructure, and because, of course, in the wake of the earthquake those factors combine to make for a country that’s going to have a very slow recovery. These conditions don’t exist in a vacuum but are correlated to how fast Haiti is going to be able to recover. There’s a reason why people aren’t getting food and other resources quickly, even when supplies have arrived to hand out, namely, that it’s really hard to get to folks in the absence of an infrastructure.
KW: I told my readers I’d be speaking with you, and they sent in a lot of questions. Larry Greenberg asks, do you think we should be having a dialog about making Haiti the 51st state or a commonwealth of the United States?
SO: No, I think what Haiti needs is to not be continually screwed by the forces around it, whether that be American forces, meaning political, not military forces, or French forces. The history of Haiti, as I’m sure you’re well aware, has been one of never giving Haiti a chance. What it really needs is an opportunity. I’m not sure that there would be an upside to the country becoming a state. Nor do I think America needs for Haiti to become a state. Haiti has a president and leadership elected by the people. It just needs some real infrastructure.
KW: You also covered the tsunami and Katrina. How do these disasters compare to each other?
SO: To me, the scope of Katrina was so much bigger than where I was in Thailand. In Thailand, after a couple of days everyone could kind of get their act together, except for in the affected area which they needed to continue working on rebuilding. By comparison, Katrina was just giant, space-wise. As for Haiti, the damage caused by the earthquake is even more widespread than Katrina, and they have much less infrastructure. I found the same sort of devastation I saw in Port-au-Prince, when we drove to Jacmel and beyond. Plus, the population density in is so much greater in Haiti where they build homes right on top of each other into these hills. So, there was a domino effect when they collapsed, especially because of the substandard construction work.
KW: I write for a Haitian publication, Heritage Konpa Magazine, whose publisher, Rene Davis, is from a place called Petit-Goave located 30 miles outside of Port-au-Prince. He emailed me to say that still nothing in the way of help has reached his hometown.
SO: Part of the problem is just the logistics. Some of those places you can’t reach simply because the roads are physically impassable. The other issue involves the challenge of delivering supplies to Haiti. Is the port open? How do you get shipments in? So, even right in Port-au-Prince, where you have such population density, you have a real problem just figuring out how to hand out stuff.
KW: Tony Noel wants to know, to what extent this is an international relief effort? Are there other countries contributing that might not be mentioned by the American mainstream press?
SO: Oh, yeah. Absolutely! What I found interesting from the getgo, when we went to the hospital in Jacmel, was that the first people I encountered were Cuban doctors. They already had a longstanding, joint project with Haiti, so they were the ones who immediately set up the outdoor, triage hospital. Those were Haitian and Cuban doctors. And at that hospital there were also medical teams from Costa Rica, Canada, Sri Lanka and the United States. It was truly an international response. No question. It was strange to be yelled at in so many different languages.

KW: After both 9/11 and Katrina, the Red Cross solicited donations but later admitted that it only distributed a small fraction of the funds raised during those ad campaigns. You were down there in Haiti. Laz Lyles asks, what’s the most effective way people can help?
SO: From my perspective, I would wait now. They have a lot of immediate money in. And people have started bringing in supplies. The initial first phase of the crisis is over. The rebuilding effort is going to take so much time that whether I wanted to send $1,000, or $5,000 or even $50,000, I’d hold on and wait to see what’s coming down the line, because that money is really going to be needed later. You might, for instance, be able to help rebuild a school, or some other project that nobody’s thinking about right now. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to help? But still, if you’re not going to send any money when the hoopla dies down, then send it now. Otherwise, wait to see what projects emerge, because the initial response has been tremendous, financially.
KW: Jimmy Bayan asks whether there’s any truth to the rumor that they’re taking Haitians survivors to Guantanamo Bay?
SO: No, I never heard that.
KW: How did it feel to be in the midst of the continuing crisis?
SO: It’s sort of the same feeling you get at any of these disasters. You don’t have a 500 lb. bag of rice to feed people who are really hungry, or a dump truck to remove cement from a spot where someone might be trapped. It’s frustrating, but I think I’ve sort of reconciled in my own head that my job is to bring notice to the world of these people’s plight. And if I try to get involved in rescuing, too, I’ll end up not doing either job very well. Although at one point, I helped out at an orphanage when an overwhelmed doctor pointed out a dehydrated baby that basically had about a couple of hours to live unless she got an IV. At that point, I was wishing that Dr. Sanjay Gupta was with me or somebody who could do it well, because I didn’t know how to put an IV in. And I knew that two doors over, there were another half-dozen kids in the same situation. She was so dehydrated, it was obvious that she wasn’t going to make it. And she hadn’t even been injured in the quake. She was just dehydrated. Babies who don’t have water will die. Dehydration kills them. After I got the IV in, I had never been so relieved in my life, because the risk had been so high. I kept thinking, “God, if this needle doesn’t get in, that’s it.” Fortunately, once we did get the IV running in her, she was fine. A lot of these infants would be just fine, if we could only get a bottle of formula to them.
KW: What about the reports of crime and violence? The U.S. news networks said there was sporadic looting and gang violence, and that 4,000 prisoners had escaped from prison and were crawling all over the streets. How much of that did you witness?
SO: There was a case where people broke into a candle store, stole the candles, and then set up shop selling candles on the street. That’s not the same as stealing a loaf of bread to keep from starving. There’s an incredible desperation there. One night, a couple hours after I left one of the orphanages, about 20 armed gunmen climbed over the wall, because they know that the orphanages have some food and supplies. I don’t think threatening children with a shotgun is okay by any means, but I can understand that they acted out of desperation.
[Attending to her son] Hey Charlie, one hard-boiled egg at a time. No two-handed eating! And anybody who’s eating needs to sit. Sorry, Kam.
KW: Did you ever feel threatened while you were in Haiti?
SO: I never felt unsafe. When I first arrived, literally 20 feet from our hotel on, there were about 20,000 people camped out on the Champ de Mars. Everyone was sitting calmly. That number must have swollen to 50,000 or more by the time I left. The plaza was just packed, but no one ever tried to climb into the hotel, where there was plenty of hot water and hot food. No one ever threatened me, or rushed me, or tried to grab my backpack, or attempted to break into our car to steal our cameras or gear, even 10 days in to the disaster. They were still all patiently waiting for food and water trucks to arrive. To me, that was the real story.
KW: What do you attribute their patience to?
SO: In part, it’s cultural. In part, Haitians don’t have the same expectation of help coming that, say, Americans had after Katrina. [Distracted by Jackson, Charlie’s twin brother] Jackson! Don’t torture your sister! Go get a toy from the other room and bring it here. That bouncy thing, or your red car. Sorry. Haitians have experienced a lot of natural disasters and have almost a sense of resignation.
KW: Yale grad Tommy Russell asks what percent of Haiti’s political infrastructure is intact?
SO: I’m not sure. I never covered that story, although I know that CNN did a report on finding the government. But I never had a sense that the Haitian government was there. I was just in lots of places where people were trying to help, like this little town where a French medical team suddenly appeared, set up a tent and started taking x-rays and treating the wounded.
KW: I remember seeing a spokesperson for Doctor without Borders complaining on TV about how most of their planes were not being allowed to land. And that the U.S. military was in control of the airport and was focused more on bringing in 13,000 soldiers than on the medical supplies that were so urgently needed.
SO: I understand, but, they needed so many things, honestly: medical supplies, food, water, excavation machines, doctors, nurses, rescue personnel, engineers, etcetera. Part of the reason they couldn’t land all their planes is that there was simply no space to land. The planes were all stacked up. That’s why we went to choppers. Getting in and out by helicopters was just so much easier. So, Doctors without Borders complaint was right that they definitely need more medical professionals, but if you’re going to try to distribute, you also need infrastructure. Haiti’s just a very messed up place right now.
KW: Where are people gravitating in Haiti, to the city or to the country?
SO: Initially, people basically moved right to open spaces because they were terrified and wanted to sleep outdoors. Then, as fuel became available and the buses began running again, you’d see them leave to live in the country, if they had relatives there. What’s complicating matters are the massive numbers of people. If you’re walking through a city with a half-million people living in tents, it’s very challenging, logistically.
KW: Mirah Riben, author of a couple books on adoption asks, what you think of the people rushing to adopt Haitian babies?
SO: I think anybody who is willing to adopt a child in any situation is amazing. That’s really a very selfless thing to do. However, I agree with those who say that adoption should not be rushed. The adoption process in Haiti normally takes several years, and it should. It would be terrible to risk an adoption by someone who should not be adopting a child. Still, what I find frustrating is that so many people see it as an either/or situation. You can do an airlift for kids who are dying, feed them, and return them without adopting them out. It doesn’t have to be either snatching babies out of their parents’ arms or leaving them there to die. There’s a middle ground in there, and what’s made me really angry is how the question has been posed as one or the other. Plus, there are plenty of orphanages that don’t offer kids for adoption, but just take care of kids for people who can’t afford to raise them. In a way, those kids are currently the most desperate, since they’re totally under the radar. You get a sense that their situation is very dire and that no one is keeping track of them. So, it sort of annoys me that there isn’t a sense of urgency about trying to save them, too.
KW: Mirah also feels that people inclined to adopt on impulse ought to be encouraged instead to donate money so the kids can be raised right there by relatives and grow up in Haiti in their own culture.
SO: Yeah, the impulse to adopt is coming from a great place. I felt the same way when I encountered a truck with about 25 babies lying in the back. I wanted to grab as many as I could hold and run for the border. They had diarrhea and started puking all over me. I can’t tell you how many of my personal friends have asked, “What do I have to do to help one of those babies?” Their thinking is, if they’re going to die, it’s worth trying to save them, no matter what’s involved. That’s a wonderful impulse. But I think there’s a vast middle ground between adoption and doing nothing. I’ve spoken to bureaucrats who say, “Well, you know, we don’t want to rush anything,” and I’ve responded, “But human beings are literally dying, and it really disturbs me that you’re waiting.” I had parents handing me their kids. They were like, “Please take this child and educate him.”
KW: This reminds me that Mirah was wondering whether you’re aware of the controversy suggesting that children are being taken out of the country before their relatives can be located.
SO: Absolutely! That’s not a controversy. It’s a fact. You should never want to adopt children out and give them a new set of parents before you’ve done your due diligence to find their biological parents. What I would suggest is that instead of adopting them out, you make sure they’re safe and fed. You just take care of them. We certainly have the resources to do it in Haiti, once the infrastructure is fixed.
KW: Marcia Evans asks, why isn't anyone talking about the lack of support from Santo Domingo? She says that one Dominican hospital on the border only belatedly opened its doors to Haitian refugees.
SO: That’s not true. That hospital was open from the getgo. I was there. That hospital on the border was open very early on, and the Dominicans were flying in a lot of supplies. I saw Dominican trucks and Dominican soldiers, too. The Dominicans were not dragging their feet. They were triaging people and flying the more seriously injured to other hospitals that could take better care of them.
KW: Marcia further suggests that Dominicans might have racist feelings about their darker-skinned Haitian neighbors.
SO: Has there been a long mutual distrust and animosity between Haiti and the Dominican Republic? The answer definitely is “Yes!” In fact, I interviewed the Dominican President about that. His take is that at one point Haiti and the Dominican Republic were at war with each other, and that the Dominican Republic won its freedom from Haiti. So, the history of those countries is of not getting along. But in terms of the earthquake, I haven’t seen anybody who’s said, “We’re not going to help.”
KW: We’re you afraid when that 6.0 aftershock hit?
SO: Yes, that was very scary. I grabbed my Blackberry and sneakers, and ran like hell out of my hotel room. It was the craziest thing to see the entire hotel empty out of people who were running for their lives. After all, we’d been spending our entire days examining the aftermath of what happens when entire buildings collapse on people. And who knew how structurally sound our hotel was?
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
SO: Mountains beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. It’s a biography of Dr. Paul Farmer which focuses on Haiti and the history of medical care there. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s amazing!

KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What are you listening to on your iPod?
SO: Well, my nieces loaded my iPod with Lady Gaga, everything Beyonce’ and Ne-Yo.
KW: Last time I asked, you said you don’t cook, that you’re mother did a lot of cooking for your family. Instead, let me ask what is your favorite dish to eat?
SO: Yeah, I don’t do much cooking, but my favorite meal to eat is black beans and rice.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
SO: It’s not very early, but I remember being dropped off at kindergarten for the first day of school.
KW: The Mike Pittman question: Who was your best friend as a child?
SO: In elementary school, it was a girl named Shevoy Onley. In high school, it was probably Patricia Cotthaus, and then Margo Schatz a little bit later
KW: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite fashion designer?
SO: Oh God, I have a zillion. I love Carolina Herrera... I love David Meister... I love Carmen Marc Valvo... Hold on, we have a loose tooth emergency. [attends to son Charlie] Here it comes… It came out. There you go, Charlie! Jackson, that means you’re going to continue to be a good whistler, but your brother won’t be whistling for a little bit. Twins!
KW: How did the kids feel about your being in Haiti and how were they affected by the disaster?
SO: They want to help. They want to adopt a baby, or a village. My daughter had a long conversation with me. She feels that we, meaning all of America, could make a difference, and make some real, structural changes in Haiti, not just short-term change that will only last six months.
KW: Wow! That’s wonderful! Well, thanks again for taking the time to share what you witnessed in Haiti with me and my readers.
SO: Thank you.

Extraordinary Measures

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Parents Resort to “Extraordinary Measures” to Save Sick Kids

Two of John (Brendan Fraser) and Aileen (Keri Russell) Crowley’s three children were born with Pompe Disease, a condition which prevents the body from digesting sugar. At the time, infants diagnosed with the rare genetic disorder typically died before two years of age. That’s why, when their daughter, Megan (Meredith Droeger), and son, Patrick (Diego Velasquez), reached their 6th and 8th birthdays, respectively, doctors suggested that they should be content with the fact that both had managed to survive beyond their life expectancy.
Nonetheless, John, a Harvard MBA employed by the pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers, decided to dedicate himself to saving his kids’ lives. So, he traveled to the University of Nebraska to meet face-to-face with Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford), the leading scientist doing research on Pompe Disease.
However, John was dismayed to learn that the professor’s progress had stalled due to a lack of funding. In fact, the Nebraska football coach’s salary was greater than the amount dedicated to Stonehill’s entire project, even though he claimed to be on the verge of a scientific breakthrough.
Next, both John and the brilliant, if unorthodox professor both quit their jobs in order to create a biotech foundation with the sole purpose of finding a cure for Pompe. Thus, while the highly-motivated father relied on his business background to raise $100 million dollars, Dr. Stonehill focused on discovering a drug which would do the work of the Pompe patients’ missing enzyme.
Directed by Tom Vaughan, Extraordinary Measures is based on “The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million –and Bucked the Medical Establishment—in a Quest to Save His Children,” a best seller by Pulitzer Prize-winner Geeta Anand. This tender tearjerker basically revolves around the strained relationship of Mr. Crowley and Dr. Stonehill, while we wait to see whether Megan and Patrick will be blessed with their much needed medical miracle.
Harrison Ford, shines though cast against type, since he normally plays the role of the anguished parent. Here, Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell handle that assignment capably. To its credit, this syrupy saga somehow proves moving, in spite of a fairly formulaic, Hollywood approach to the execution of the Crowleys’ truly inspirational story.

Very Good (3 stars)
Rated PG for mature themes, suggestive material and mild epithets.
Running time: 106 Minutes
Studio: CBS Films

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Apocalyptic Horror Flick Finds Humanity Facing the Wrath of God

How often do you have a film where God’s the villain? Very rarely, indeed. However, just such a novel scenario provides the intriguing premise for Legion, a blasphemous, apocalyptic adventure certain at least to delight the atheist demographic.
The movie marks the directorial debut of Scott Stewart, previously best known for his stellar special effects work on such visually-captivating blockbusters as Jurassic Park, Live Free or Die Hard, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and Night at the Museum. Here, he has assembled an A-List ensemble to serve as sacrificial lambs for the sake of his high attrition-rate horror flick. The talented cast includes Paul Bettany, Dennis Quaid, Tyrese, Charles S. Dutton and Lucas Black.
The story unfolds a couple of days before Christmas when the Archangel Michael (Bettany) lands in Los Angeles on a mission from the almighty. He’s ostensibly been sent from Heaven to eradicate mankind from the face of the Earth, because the Lord has lost faith in the human race. Lucky for us, Michael decides to defect and to fight the army of fellow angels arriving in his wake.
Meanwhile, in the Mojave Desert, there are some strange goings-on at a truck stop diner prophetically-named Paradise Falls. There, we meet about to pop Charlie (Adrianne Malicki), a mom-too-be who shares a nearby trailer with auto mechanic Jeep (Black). He’s an ardent admirer, but not the father of the baby. Underachieving Jeep has mostly been a big disappointment to his dad, Bob (Dennis Quaid), the widowed owner of the rundown service station/restaurant. The only other employee on the premises is Percy (Dutton), the greasy spoon’s one-armed chef.
The fun starts when an elderly woman on a walker (Jeanette Miller) inexplicably exhibits superhuman strength before taking a big bite out of the neck of another customer (Jon Tenney). As it turns out, this possessed demon is actually out to abort Charlie’s unborn infant, who might very well be the Second Coming of Christ. Fortunately, streetwise Kyle (Tyrese) happens to be packing heat, and he blows granny away, making the bug-eyed observation that, “The bitch just walked on the ceiling.”
From this juncture forward, the tale telescopes in on the people’s valiant struggle to survive` barricade themselves inside the diner to brace for the onslaught of a holy horde led by the Archangel Gabriel. With the help of Michael, who arrives with guns and ammo, the ensuing battle royal between good and evil gives people a fighting chance against God.
If the plot sounds suspiciously similar, you might have seen The Seventh Sign, another end of days drama in which Demi Moore’s pregnant character represents the last hope for humanity. In the case of Legion, the eye-popping special f/x outweigh the frequently corny dialogue to yield an old-fashioned B-screamer that’s an amusing enough diversion to be worthwhile, so long as you don’t mind faith-based fare where Messengers of God might not ultimately prevail.
It’s a wonderful life where every time you hear a whelp ring out, another angel gets his head blown off.

Good (2 stars)
Rated R for profanity and graphic violence.
Running time: 104 Minutes
Distributor: Screen Gems

Friday, January 22, 2010

Whip It DVD



DVD Review by Kam Williams


Headline: Drew Barrymore Directorial Debut Released on DVD


                     17 year-old Bliss Lavendar (Ellen Page) is a small-town girl who has reluctantly entered the Miss Bluebonnet Beauty Pageant at the direction of her domineering mother (Marcia Gay Harden). What we have here is a tragic case of a parent attempting to live vicariously through a child, since Mrs. Lavendar sorely wants to see her daughter win a competition she lost at the same age.

                     However, Bliss is a rough-and-tumble tomboy who’d rather be a jammer on the Hurl Scouts, an all-female roller derby team. But she seems already too busy to fit anything else into her schedule, between preparing for college and her after school job as a waitress at the Oink Joint, Home of the Squealer.

                     Nonetheless, curiosity gets the better of Bliss, so one day she sneaks out of the house to attend a tryout for the Hurl Scouts, where she makes fast friends with Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), a veteran who shows her the ropes.

 Despite all the bumps and bruises, Bliss takes to the sport, though deciding to tell her mother she’s enrolled in an SAT prep course instead of the truth

                     This sets up the classic “one big lie which must be hidden at all costs” premise which underpins Whip It, an estrogen-fueled, female empowerment flick based on Shauna Cross’ novel of the same name. The movie marks the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore who had the wherewithal to assemble a very talented cast to play an array of colorful characters, from the smarmy emcee (Jimmy Fallon) to the tattooed butch (Juliette Lewis).

                     The cliché-ridden plot thickens predictably when the Hurl Scouts’ make the playoffs and the championship game against their cross-town rivals, the Holy Rollers, is scheduled for the same night as the Bluebonnet Pageant. At that juncture, the tension builds around whether Bliss will follow her heart or capitulate to her mother’s wishes?

                     Pleasant, if formulaic, Whip It is mostly a mindless diversion designed to hold your interest via a profusion of such teensploit staples as the gratuitous hot tub party and the cafeteria food fight. Juno on roller skates!


Very Good (2.5 stars)

Rated PG-13 for sexuality, profanity, crude humor and drug use.

Running time: 111 minutes

Studio: Fox Home Entertainment

DVD Extras: An alternate opening, deleted and alternate scenes and theatrical trailers.

This Is It DVD

DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Michael Jackson Mesmerizing Swan Song Due on DVD

Taped during rehearsals for the late Michael Jackson’s London comeback tour which was not to be, This Is It is captures the essence of a Prince of Pop concert, only sans audience. In this regard, the movie actually allows for a much more intimate experience than one taped in front of throngs of loud, distracting and adoring fans. For here, in the empty Staples Center in Los Angeles, you’re able to focus strictly on Michael, and to listen to him interact with his crew and collaborators in between numbers instead of hearing deafening applause.
For there’s Michael plus an elaborate menagerie comprised of musicians, backup singers, crotch-grapping dancers, strippers on poles, daredevil tightrope aerialists, costumed actors in masks, pyrotechnics, a blue screen showing a variety of images, human toasters (you’ll see), smoke and wind machines, everything but Mad Dogs and Englishmen. And they all combine to put on quite a show, even if perfectionist Michael periodically interrupts to adjust the lighting, the sound level or the play of one of his accompanists.
The film features plenty of inspired musical performances, including Billie Jean, Thriller, Man in the Mirror, Smooth Criminal, The Way You Make Me Feel, I Want You Back, The Love You Save, I’ll Be There and the title track. What we repeatedly see here is a multi-talented genius at work, a man perhaps most comfortable in this milieu, namely, on stage, whether he’s complaining about an earpiece (“It feels like someone’s fist is shoved into my ear.”), orchestrating complicated choreography, or doing a soulful duet with Judith Hill, the beautiful African-Asian-American soprano who would later sing Heal the World shortly thereafter at his funeral.
Again and again, Michael takes charge, for he knows exactly how he wants each tune to sound and look in order to satisfy his fans. And because he was so unguarded and totally oblivious of the rolling cameras, this flick captures him more authentically than any previous footage this critic has witnessed (including that Martin Brashear BBC documentary), and reveals the very likable persona of an icon who was obviously born to entertain.
Not a ghoulish take-the-money-and-run rip-off, but a surprisingly sweet, sensitive, tenderhearted swan song you will never forget that will have you shedding a tear while tapping your feet.

Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG for suggestive choreography and scary images.
Running time: 112 minutes
Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
DVD Extras: Three featurettes, two “Making of” documentaries and a theatrical trailer.

Surrogates BLU-RAY

Blu-Ray Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Bruce Willis’ Futuristic Sci-Fi Thriller Out on Blu-Ray

It’s Boston in 2017, a time when people live in near total isolation from one another. Instead of leaving their homes, they send remote-controlled robots into public as their virtual emissaries. In this scenario, you are legally allowed to rely on a surrogate that looks like a younger version of yourself, although it’s a felony to control a computerized clone registered to someone else.
With nothing but cyborgs out on the streets, it’s no surprise that the world has been transformed into a virtual utopia where crime has become a thing of the past. However, the peace of Beantown is suddenly shattered when the city suffers its first murder in years. What’s curious about the slaying is that the victim (Shane Dzicek) is the son of Dr. Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), the inventor of surrogates.
Assigned by FBI Chief Andrew Stone (Boris Kodjoe) to crack the case are Agents Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell). Initially, the baffled partners wonder why anyone might want the kid dead. Then, more killings occur, and the investigation reveals that the murder weapon is a high-tech gadget capable of destroying a surrogate while simultaneously liquefying its corresponding human’s brain.
Soon, the trail leads to the Dread Reservation, a sanctuary for rebels who have refused to surrender their autonomy to Dr. Canter’s race of robots. After it becomes apparent that The Prophet (Ving Rhames) must be masterminding the revolution, Greer opts to bring his aging body out of mothballs in order to take on the leader of this resistance movement, mano-a-mano.
Thus unfolds Surrogates, a futuristic Dirty Harry directed by Jonathan Mostow. Adapted from Robert Venditti’s graphic novel of the same name, the film unfortunately fails to live up to its promising premise. The problems start with the screen being cluttered with way too many characters (two of everybody) and the futility of asking an audience to invest emotionally in robots. Ultimately, the twists turn preposterous, and it doesn’t help that the cast can’t sell the ludicrous script convincingly.
Yetta nudder cautionary tale issuing dire warnings about the pitfalls of technology run amuck.

Fair (1.5 stars)
Rated PG-13 for profanity, disturbing images, sexuality, drug use and intense violence.
Running time: 89 minutes
Studio: Touchstone Home Entertainment
Blu-Ray Extras: Deleted scenes, music video by Breaking Benjamin, director’s commentary plus two featurettes.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Crazy Heart



Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Jeff Bridges Shines in Bittersweet Character Study


                A year ago, Mickey Rourke became the toast of Tinseltown after the release of The Wrestler, in which he delivered a memorable performance as a down on his luck loser making the most of his last shot at redemption.

Rourke, whose own life’s trajectory resembled the arc of the character he was portraying, collected a Golden Globe and numerous other accolades over the course of the 2009 awards season.

                Looks like Jeff Bridges is about to match Mickey’s feat, having just landed a Golden Globe for Crazy Heart, a similarly-themed character study revolving around a washed-up country singer attempt to revive his flagging career. Hollywood has a habit of rushing to imitate successful films, which helps explain why the equally-gritty flicks seem so similar in tone.

 Let’s compare. Rourke’s “Ram “ was a depressed, homeless, sickly, self-abusing ex-wrestler who reconciles with his long-estranged daughter before returning to the ring with the help of his girlfriend, a stripper with a heart of gold and mummeries of silicon. Now, Bridges, as “Bad,” is a chain-smoking, once-famous crooner with a host of woes ranging from alcoholism to emphysema. He also leans on the shoulder, so to speak, of a considerably-younger lover (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and needs to track down the son (Brian Gleason) he hasn’t seen in 25 years.

 At the point of departure, we find Bad crisscrossing the country in his car, doing one-night stands in dives and honky-tonk saloons. A shot at salvation plus some steamy rolls in the hay finally arrive the day he meets Jean, the jiggly journalist who decides to dedicate herself to getting his life back on track.

 Provided you haven’t seen The Wrestler, or at least aren’t put off by the pervasive sense of déjà vu this derivative drama tends to generate, you are apt to appreciate Crazy Heart, especially if you are found of Country Western music. A bonus is Bridges (as well as supporting cast members Robert Duvall and Dubliner Colin Farrell) doing his own singing, which just might be the little extra needed to earn the four-time Academy Award also-ran that elusive Oscar.

                Who needs The Wrestler when you have The Crooner?


Very Good (2.5 stars)


Running time: 112 Minutes

Distributor: Fox Searchlight