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Politics AT The Movies

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Directed by Göran Olsson

Playing at Tower Theater, October 14-20

Review by Alisen Boada

“We have to tell our own stories,” warns musician Erykah Badu, near the conclusion of Göran Olsson’s “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975.”

That piece of truth seems an ironic note to end on for a documentary that adds up to an amalgam of footage taken by “starry-eyed” Swedish journalists fascinated and disgusted by the inequities of 1960’s America. The movie provides barebones context via the occasional caption and commentary from those involved in the original Black Power movement and contemporary artists. Though, more often than not, the footage can speak for itself.

It features never-before-seen material of iconic leaders of the Black Power movement, like Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis, as vulnerable human beings outside of the extremist persona, asserting themselves against a lifetime of systemic oppression.

Unfortunately, aside from the chorological ordering, the movies remains an open-ended, patchwork narrative of the Black Power movement, serving more as a platform for admittedly the poignant, formerly-lost footage and the Swedish beef with Pax Americana. Well-edited and well-intentioned, the film doesn’t tell, or claim to tell, the whole story of a movement that has yet to be discussed in mainstream cinema.

I’ve sadly learned very little of the Black Power movement. My knowledge of the civil rights movement was limited to the standard offerings of public education, painting an over simplified dichotomy between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and the option of college elective material relegated to the extreme outskirts of the liberal arts.

But to me, “Black Power Mixtape” served as a reminder that though progress came of the movement (though not discussed by the movie), the persistent reality of racial hierarchies in America is now more covert, but as intact as ever. What more proof is needed than a cursory look at the distribution of wealth and power?

And as the spirit of protest inspires a new generation to critically assess the structural abuses of the country, it would be well for them to remember those that came before them.

The Ides of March
Co-Written and Directed by George Clooney

Review by Tony Sheppard
This story about a Democratic presidential hopeful during primary season has much going for it, including an all-star cast. Co-writer/director George Clooney is the candidate, Philip Seymour Hoffman is his campaign manager, Ryan Gosling is the assistant campaign manager, and Paul Giamatti is the (barely seen) opponent’s campaign manager. Additionally, Marisa Tomei plays an opportunistic journalist, Evan Rachel Wood plays an even more opportunistic intern, and Jeffrey Wright plays a senator who is the most opportunistic of all of them.

Based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, the action centers on campaign stops in Ohio as the two candidates are also courting Wright’s Senator Thompson and his loyal delegates. Hoffman and Giamatti are great as the long-time, rival campaigners who are in this more for the game, the action, and the win than for their respective candidates’ positions. Meanwhile Gosling’s Stephen Myers is still the young idealist – the up-and-coming star of the campaign trail who is seen as a media guru but who needs to believe the message. He has found his guiding star in Clooney’s Governor Mike Morris, a man who seems unwilling to compromise his ideals and who is comfortable with an “If you don’t like me, don’t vote for me” stump speech.

Which brings us to the general theme: It’s another veiled coming-of-age tale – a story of the loss of innocence in an arena where innocence has no chance of surviving. It seems only a matter of time before Myers transitions into the more jaded political hack. But that’s also where the story falters and undermines itself.
The point of the story would seem more interesting if such a change of heart came as a result of one too many questionable deals or endorsements, or a failure to effect change, rather than an almost total meltdown around the central character (Gosling/Myers). It always seems like a copout to tell a story, for example, about somebody who suddenly realizes the justice system is flawed only after a family member is killed – as though nobody can ever learn through relatively objective encounters or through nuanced observation from a distance.  

Here we get such extreme circumstances that we’re left wondering what the point of the story really is. Are we supposed to assume that everybody that becomes jaded with the system has some appallingly ugly skeleton in the closet, rather than simply having lost faith over too many promises and too few results? It’s like we’re introduced to this world that’s colored in intriguing and provocative shades of grey, some almost indistinguishable from the others, and then it suddenly gets repainted in stark black-and-white with no surviving subtlety whatsoever.

The title itself is appropriate, as there’s no shortage of backstabbing going on including, perhaps, the story managing to stab itself in the back along the way. But the intent is clearly murky. Being well-made and well-acted isn’t enough to overcome the risk that the film gets caught between a rock and a hard place, with audiences that will find it either too political or not political enough. I think it’s fair to say that I enjoyed watching it, but I’m not enjoying thinking about it as much.

The Big Year
Review by Tony Sheppard
Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black play three birders who are intent on having a “big year” – the highest number of sightings of distinct species of bird in North America in a single calendar year. Wilson plays the old hand here, the person with the existing record to both gloat about and protect. Martin plays a successful businessman who has delayed his passion for birding until he can focus on it in well-heeled retirement, and Black is a computer technician who can barely afford the first plane ticket, let alone the dozens he needs to track and backtrack around the continent in search of the rarest of the rare.

There’s some interesting potential here and, if nothing else, the film manages to introduce an entire audience to the serious end of the birder community – the folks who put lives, work, and relationships on hold to pursue their dreams, a tale that could also be told about any number of other pursuits. I had never given much thought to the impact of major weather systems on migrating birds and the sudden appearance of species literally blown off course during flight.
But it’s another near-miss that stumbles by not having a clear intent. It’s also like “The Ides of March” in that it can’t settle on mild conflicts, it has to introduce major crises rather than everyday concerns. It’s as if the filmmakers don’t trust the audience to be able to appreciate the tradeoffs and compromises of lives with conflicting interests, without making it be a choice between all or nothing.
The pacing and tone are also inconsistent. At times bordering on slapstick and then switching gears to contemplate life’s priorities, it never quite seems to be comfortable at any one sustainable speed. The result of which will likely disappoint fans of the three stars’ broader comedies without managing to satisfy those in search of meaningful drama. Passion shouldn’t be this bland.

Footloose
Directed by Craig Brewer

Review by Tony Sheppard
OK – the big question surrounding “Footloose” is whether it lives up to the original and will it grossly offend those who are outraged that it’s even been remade? The answer is essentially a double no – it’s not as memorable, but it’s also not bad. The story is the same conflict between over-protective elders and a ban on public dancing, and the younger members of the community who can’t hear a beat without their feet taking on a life of their own. Kenny Wormald does a decent job in the central role, as the new kid in town who can’t believe the world he finds himself in. And he can certainly dance, with one of the best “angry dance” scenes since “Billy Elliot.” But, if the original had never existed, it’s hard to believe this retread would come to have the same iconic status or be likely to spawn its own remakes. It’s fun but it’s also a little lacking in wattage, like a feature-length episode of ‘dancing without the stars.’

Brighton Rock
Directed by Rowan Joffe

Review by Tony Sheppard
This is a dark movie that never lets up in its tale of a small-time hoodlum in 1960’s Brighton, England, against a backdrop of the youth violence between mods and rockers. Pinkie’s father-figure and gang leader is killed, upsetting the balance of power both within the group and in relation to a larger, rival organization. Sensing opportunity, Pinkie attempts to manipulate those around him, including Rose, a young tearoom waitress who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Elevated by neat supporting performances from Helen Mirren and John Hurt (and a relatively rare opportunity to see Golum’s Andy Serkis in a live-action role), this adaptation of the classic novel remains compelling despite the relentlessly amoral actions of Pinkie and his associates. It’s essentially a character study of a psychopath no longer bounded by the guidance of his mentor. While uncomfortable for some, it’s an intriguing descent into the darker depths of a human nature unhindered by remorse.

Machine Gun Preacher
Directed by Marc Forster
“Machine Gun Preacher” is based on the true story of Sam Childers, an ex-con with a background in violent crime and drug abuse, who found religion and built a church and orphanage in war-ravaged Sudan. It’s an intriguing story that suffers by feeling like it’s probably less interesting than a documentary might be – a feeling that’s reinforced by the snapshots of the real Childers that are screened over the end credits. It’s also likely to be uncomfortably preachy for those who don’t share the same faith, even if the accomplishments themselves might be of interest. That said, it does do a good job of reminding viewers of the scale and nature of real danger and brutality (rape, murder, and the forced recruitment of child soldiers), as compared to “first world problems,” such as his daughter’s disappointment over not having a rented limousine for her school dance. But I wish I had stumbled upon a Biography Channel special rather than what ends up feeling like an abruptly halted, half-story.

What’s Your Number?
Directed by Mark Mylod
Funnier than I had expected, “What’s Your Number?” is centered around a young woman (Anna Faris) who is alarmed after reading a magazine article that makes her realize that she has had far more boyfriends than average. In trying not to increase that number, she attempts to revisit old relationships, in search of more potential than she originally saw. This sets up some amusing and pleasantly brief encounters with a broad array of characters including, for example, an English ex-boyfriend around whom she fakes an English accent. It’s also worth noting that while her accent varies from moment to moment, that’s both intentional and funny – whereas Anne Hathaway’s wandering accent in the recent “One Day” was neither. There’s virtually nothing surprising here, but it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

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