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Entries in Kerry Washington (3)

Friday
Mar092012

A Thousand Words

Back in college, I was lucky enough to nab a one-on-one, in person interview with Clark Duke, who was in DC promoting his upcoming film, Hot Tub Time Machine. As a nervous, first-time-interviewing college student, I asked your typical interview questions because I was unable to handle myself in such situations. Near the end of the interview, I asked him what he had coming next because, aside from the little seen Sex Drive, he hadn’t done much and wasn’t well known (Kick-Ass had not yet been released). He said to me that later that year, a movie he had done with Eddie Murphy called A Thousand Words would be released. This was in January of 2010. Now here we are, over two years later, and it’s just now seeing the light of day. Originally filmed in 2008 and delayed multiple times, it’s been sitting on the shelf for four years. Directed by Brian Robbins, the same man behind recent Eddie Murphy travesties Norbit and Meet Dave (and taken with the fact that it wasn’t screened for critics), chances were A Thousand Words would be unwatchable dreck, but it’s not. I know I’m in the minority on this one and it’s certainly not a great movie, but there’s more to it than Robbins’ other directorial efforts, which is a happy surprise.

Murphy plays Jack McCall, a literary agent who claims he can sign anybody to do anything. When he discovers the popularity of a New Age spiritual guru, Dr. Sinja, played by Cliff Curtis, who has just written a new self help book, he sets off to make him his next big paycheck. When he arrives, he stumbles upon a tree that cuts him when he touches it. Upon arriving home, he mysteriously finds that same tree in his back yard. At first, he doesn’t think much of it, but soon he realizes that with every word he speaks, a leaf falls off. He and the tree are connected, so whatever happens to it, happens to him. Once it loses its leaves, it will die and so will Jack.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, A Thousand Words is not very funny. While it’s not as immature as Norbit or as family friendly as Meet Dave, it never seems to take off. It has a chuckle or two here and there (one scene in particular where Jack’s assistant, played by Clark Duke, acts like Jack in a high pressure situation, which includes excessive language and over-the-top mannerisms—in typical Eddie Murphy style—is quite funny), but the comedy fails far more often than it succeeds. For about half of the film’s 90 minute runtime, it’s practically unwatchable, but then something strange happens. It transitions from a zany comedy to a well meaning and moderately effective drama.

Jack is someone who takes language for granted. His job requires him to say whatever is necessary to close a deal, even if it means lying through his teeth, but when he discovers his connection with the tree, his words are taken away. His relationship with his wife, played by the beautiful Kerry Washington, is simultaneously falling apart and she’s threatening to take their infant son and leave. He has used his words throughout his entire career to accomplish many things, but none ever really meant anything to him. When he actually needs his words to save the one thing in the world that’s important to him, he finds he doesn’t have enough left. Although this certainly isn’t the most profound movie in the world, I appreciated the thematic juxtaposition of a man who spoke and spoke without saying much of anything at all discovering how powerful his words can be.

There’s an additional side story involving Jack’s mentally weakening mother that doesn’t really work and has no true bearing on the story at hand (despite a solid performance from screen veteran Ruby Dee) and a couple of out of place visions are far too on the nose to be effective, but A Thousand Words surprised me with its sincerity. This isn’t just crudeness for the sake of crudeness like Norbit. This is a moderately intelligent movie that actually aims to make a point. It may not fully live up to its potential, but it also far exceeds its expectations. I may be chastised for this one, but consider this my recommendation.

A Thousand Words receives 3/5

Friday
Dec172010

Night Catches Us

It can sometimes be difficult to sit through a movie from an amateur, a person who, despite giving a valiant effort, lacks the precision and skill to pull off a major motion picture. Night Catches Us, the debut writing and directorial effort from first time filmmaker Tanya Hamilton, has little amateur about it. While by no means perfect, this is a confident picture that is audacious in its scope and pulled off with carefulness to ensure that its little stumbles don’t do enough to derail it.

The story takes place in Philadelphia in 1976. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) has just returned to his hometown neighborhood after an absence of four years. Upon arrival, he finds himself immediately harassed by members of the soon-to-be-extinct Black Panther party who claim he snitched on a friend of theirs, which led to his death by gunfire from the police. While in town, he shacks up with old friend and current love interest, Patricia (the wonderful Kerry Washington), whose cousin, Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), is causing her more trouble than she can handle as he violently carries out the Black Panthers cry to kill cops.

The Black Panther movement is considered one of the most significant in American history, yet their name holds a negative connotation. While they set out to do good, setting up programs to help those in need of food and healthcare, including what is arguably their most successful program, “Free Breakfast for Children,” their hatred and violent aggression towards authority counteracted any type of political or social statement they may have made otherwise. Night Catches Us passes on the best aspects of the Black Panthers and focuses solely on the worst. They are not shown doing any good in this movie and any positive thing they may have done in the past goes unspoken. For the purpose of the film, they are cop killers.

Why Hamilton did this is a question that remains unanswered, but my theory is that she desired to isolate the bad so those who stand behind the Black Panthers as righteous figures could see what type of harm they were causing. There’s a passion behind this work and you get the feeling that she is saddened by the way certain things were carried out by the movement, knowing in her heart that their messages would have had greater clarity had they not been drowned out by the bangs of gunfire.

In fact, there’s a passion to every facet of Night Catches Us that isn’t limited solely to the writer/director. The actors give downright superb performances, embracing these characters and crafting each one to fit snugly into the context of the story. Some are portrayed as good people who have done wrong while others are shown as collateral damage to the destruction that has been circling around them.

Night Catches Us authentically captures the racial and social divide of the time, never shying away from the harsh realizations of what went down between opposing factions, but with a length of less than an hour and a half, the story feels condensed. Just as it was truly beginning to explore its core themes, it began to wrap up. Perhaps this is where Tanya Hamilton’s lack of experience comes into play. She came onto something that, if expanded and handled a bit more delicately, could have been a tour de force for the fledgling filmmaker. She may not have found her masterpiece, but if she keeps putting out movies like this, she will soon enough.

Night Catches Us receives 4/5

Friday
Nov052010

For Colored Girls

If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that Tyler Perry is marketable. With two successful televisions shows and many profitable movies under his belt, he has a track record of excellence, at least in the monetary sense. The quality of his work can be debated (all but one of his movies are rotten at the popular critic review aggregator site, Rotten Tomatoes), but not by me. I had yet to see a Tyler Perry movie before stepping in the theater to see For Colored Girls and, frankly, it doesn’t make me want to rush out to see another one.

Based on the play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” the film is a collection of mini-stories about what it’s like to be a woman of color dealing with issues of rape, abortion, infidelity and more. Within those stories, there’s Crystal (Kimberly Elise), a woman who battles with her abusive boyfriend (Michael Ealy) and tries to keep her two children safe from his violent, alcohol fueled rampages. Coming into her life is Kelly (Kerry Washington), who works for child services and is making sure Crystal’s kids are living in a safe environment. She has problems of her own and can’t conceive with her boyfriend (Hill Harper) thanks to a damaged uterus brought on by an event she’d rather forget. Also in Crystal’s life is her boss, Jo (Janet Jackson), who takes her frustration from home out on her because she thinks her husband may be gay.

Meanwhile, Juanita (Loretta Devine), working through a non-profit organization, is trying to get a donation from Jo while wondering in the back of her mind if her husband Frank (Richard Lawson) is cheating on her. Elsewhere, Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose) is falling head over heels for a man she barely knows, though he’s about to do something to her that is unforgivable. She teaches a ballet class where one of her students, Nyla (Tessa Thompson), has just discovered she’s pregnant after recently losing her virginity. Nyla’s mother, (Whoopi Goldberg) is an overly religious woman who shuns that type of thing, so she visits her slutty sister, Tangie (Thandie Newton) to borrow some money to pay for a back alley abortionist (Macy Gray) in the hopes of keeping it all quiet.

Did I get them all? It seems like a lot, but I’m sure I’m missing somebody. For Colored Girls suffers from the same main affliction as this year’s abominable Twelve. It has way too many characters and keeping track of them proves difficult. As a critic, I take notes during screenings to ensure I can come home and properly convey how I felt while watching a movie, but for this, I mostly wrote down character names, what they were doing, who they were related to and how their lives intersected with each other. Despite that, I’m still not positive I’ve fully wrapped my head around it all.

For Colored Girls also suffers from over-the-top theatrics that come off as laughable, despite the heavy handed subject matter. I'm well aware that this movie is adapted from a stage play, but watching Whoopi Goldberg forcefully pound on a door while she screams at her trampy daughter to repent for her sins is a bit much.

The exaggerated mannerisms can be distracting, but it’s the dialogue that suffers most. The characters all speak in long winded, metaphor filled soliloquies that feel like they were taken verbatim from the play. While this probably works on the stage, it doesn't translate well to the screen. People simply do not talk like that and any type of message on race, ethnicity and the hardships that accompany girls of color are lost in a sea of daft discourse.

Although For Colored Girls is a truly wretched film, it has its heart in the right place and you’ll feel for the girls as these terrible things begin to happen for them. The post-trauma emotional breakdowns are difficult to watch because they hit hard. The actresses, specifically Anika Noni Rose, who does hers all in one take, really bring out the anger, pain and sadness one would feel after going through such events.

However, those breakdowns all follow one after the other. With no downtime, it becomes emotional overload. That there’s any emotion to pull from a movie so ludicrous is nothing short of a miracle itself and its rapid fire discharge strips it away of whatever tiny morsel of feeling it may have had otherwise.

The best thing For Colored Girls has going for it is its style. It looks good, but even that proves to be a burden on the film. In a late scene, footage of a beautiful opera is intercut with footage of a brutal rape, romanticizing the appalling deed in a way that is rather distasteful. Take into account, however, that the following scene drew unintentional laughter and you should have an indication of everything that is wrong with For Colored Girls.

For Colored Girls receives 1/5