Revolution vs Devolution. Movies Reviewed: Zoolander 2, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 2000s, African-Americans, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Fashion, FBI, Movies, Politics, Protest, Resistance, Rome by CulturalMining.com on February 12, 2016

fonds1244item71womenhatsHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

February is Toronto’s Black History Month, because Canada has a history all its own, both good and bad. There’s the black Empire Loyalists and the Underground Railroad. But there was also slavery in Canada, and the demolition of Africville in Halifax, and the rioting at Sir George Williams University in Montreal. So this weekend is a good time to catch up on some of this history at the Black Film Festival in Toronto.

This week, I’m looking at a documentary about 50 years of revolution by an African American party, and a comedy about 15 years of devolution by male models at parties.

1451590015Zoolander 2

Dir: Ben Stiller

Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) is a vapid former supermodel who lives in a log cabin in the Alps of northern New Jersey. His wife is dead and his son, Derek Jr, has been taken away by social services. Zoolander has been a hermit (or “hermit crab” as he says) since 2001. His former best friend and supermodel Hansel (Owen Wilson) lives in a tent in the middle of a vast desert near Palm Springs. He has non-stop orgies – involving sumo wrestlers, babushkas and goats — relieved only by intermittent yoga sessions. The two men hate each other’s guts. But they find themselves together 12694567_1126067307412867_853856684406049756_oagain in Rome relaunching their respective careers.

Together with former swimsuit model Valentina (Penelope Cruz), now part of Interpol’s fashion police, they join forces to fight an evil cabal of supervillains who have infiltrated the fashion industry. Why? Because the bad guys, including Mugatu (Will Farrell), want to get their hands on the fountain of youth guarded by the Chosen One. He is a direct 12742598_1126574614028803_3503656508624870388_ndescendent of an unbroken line of vapid male supermodels dating back to the Garden of Eden. (Apparently there was an Adam and Steve). But who is the Chosen One and how can they save him?

I like comedies, they just have to be funny. This one’s not. it has a few very hilarious moments, but a stand-up comic with only one laugh for every 20 jokes would be booed off the stage. It’s also weirdly outdated. I can accept that Zoolander and Hansel have hidden away for 15 years, but why is the rest of the movie in a time warp, too? It’s filled with Calvin Klein perfume ads from the 1990s, titans of the fashion avant garde like Tommy Hilfiger,  “hipsters” wearing dreadlocks,  and Al Qaeda as the most dangerous terrorists. Even the plot is a take-off of a Dan Brown novel. Everything in the movie just seems so old. There’s no satire, and very little humour. The funniest moments come from the tickle of recognition that accompanies the countless celebrities — Bieber, Kardashian, Sarandon, Sutherland — who make cameo appearances. But it’s not enough to rescue this dud.

20150804_152141_8000991-women-drilling-with-panther-flags-photo-courtesy-of-pirkle-jones.jpg.1280x720_q85The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Dir: Stanley Nelson

It’s 1966. The US is fighting in Vietnam and anti-war protests are springing up around the world. The civil rights movement is in full swing in the southern states. But in northern cities, in places like Oakland California, the police are still arresting, frisking and beating black men with impunity. So two young leaders, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, found a black nationalist movement there to counter police brutality and 20150804_152141_8233072-charles-bursey-hands-plate-of-food-to-a-child-seated-at-free-bre.jpg.1280x720_q85racial oppression and to express black pride and solidarity. And if attacked by the police, they vowed to fight back by any means necessary (in the words of Malcolm X). They named it the Black Panther Party. Members cut a mean profile: natural hairstyles, shades, black leather jackets, and military-style black berets. And, most shocking of all, they carried long guns — in the name of the Second Amendment and the Right to Bear Arms — 20150804_152141_8093234-panthers-on-parade-at-free-huey-rally-in-defermery-park-oakland-.jpg.1280x720_q85with leather straps of bullets across their chests. They were later joined by Eldridge Cleaver whose book Soul on Ice, written in prison, captured the nation’s mood.

Lyndon B Johnson, the president, and FBI chief J Edgar Hoover were shocked. They considered a black nationalist movement the biggest danger of them all — bigger than communism. They swung into action using the notorious COINTELPRO — counter-intelligence program — to infiltrate and spy on the group. They sent letters and ohone calls to women saying their husbands were cheating on them. The police were called into action to break up meetings and arrest its 20150804_152143_3153609-eldridge-cleaver-berkeley-photo-courtesy-of-jeffrey-blankfort.jpg.1280x720_q85members. Dozens were arrested on trumped-up charges, and many killed in raids across the country. Some are still in prison to this day. At an infamous Chicago trial, the judge actually had Bobby Seale chained to a chair, bound and gagged, in the courtroom, making him the perfect symbol of state oppression. Eldridge Cleaver fled to Algeria. Later many of the top members changed their beliefs, leaving the party divided among warring factions.

This is a fascinating history of the movement, with tons of still photos, archival footage, and new interviews with members that tell you lots you’ve probably never heard of. Did you know they started a successful school breakfast program? And published a newspaper that was their main source of income? Their standard image is of armed black men, but the majority of rank-and20150804_152141_8192973-black-panthers-from-sacramento-free-huey-rally-bobby-hutton-memo.jpg.1280x720_q85-file members were actually women, fighting for women’s rights within the party. The film doesn’t go deeply into the more controversial aspects of The Black Panthers. Some thought it undermined the non-violent civil rights movement. Or that it was big on image, weak on politics. But whatever your point of view, the Panthers made a huge mark on American history beginning 50 years ago, and this film explains it all.

Zoolander 2 opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is playing on Saturday at 11:00 AM at the Carlton Cinema as part of Toronto’s Black Film Festival. Go to torontoblackfilm.com for more info. And the Next Wave Film Festival is on all weekend long for 14-18 year-olds who love movies. Check out tiff.net for details — especially its great closing film Sing Street.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Back to the Future? Films Reviewed: The Visitor, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Toronto Ice Storm 2013Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I’m taping this a week in advance, during the Toronto Ice Storm, when the power’s still off, the sidewalks still icy and Rob Ford is still mayor. But who knows what it will be like by the time you’re listening to this. Back to the future? Fittingly, I’m looking at a couple oddball fantasy movies — a remake and a rerelease — both pointless but watchable froth to bring in the new year. The remake is an American comedy about a day-dreaming adult, the rerelease an Italian horror movie (from the 1970’s) about a brat with secret powers.

The Visitor fangoria Films We LikeThe Visitor

Dir: Giulio Paradisi

Presented by Drafthouse Films and Fangoria

Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail) is a modern woman who values her freedom. She lives in a mansion in Atlanta with her sweet little daughter Katy (Paige Conner) and Katy’s pet bird. She’s being wooed by Raymond (Lance Henrickson) a slick-but-secretive basketball promoter. What she doesn’t realize is that Raymond reports to a cabal of identically dressed businessmen who are up to no good. They just want her offspring. You see, Barbara has special DNA and Katy has supernatural powers. If the cabal can pull off an alien abduction Barbara will reproduce with a special superbaby (as if her one kid isn’t trouble enough!)

Katy is actually a foul mouthed brat. She uses her powers for selfish reasons – Visitor2puting the kybosh on other kids she goes skating or does gymnastics with.  On her birthday, Katy’s gift turns into a handgun, which shoots Barbara, rendering her paraplegic.

Meanwhile, a wise old man with a white beard and a beige leisure suit (John Huston) is tracking Katy, too. He travels with a retinue of kids dressed in white. These silent, baldheaded teenagers are his disciples. You can tell he’s important because whenever he appears the theme music starts up again as he walks down a futuristic-looking escalator. And when a detective (investigates her birthday shooting she sends her pet bird to attack him.

Who will triumph? The satanic businessmen-aliens? Or the benevolent robe-wearing superman-like aliens? And will anyone stop spoiling that evil kid?

Visitor3This movie exists in its own bizarro-world, circa 1979. Shelley Winters plays Barabara’s intuitive housemaid singing Mama’s little baby loves shortening bread as she spies on Katy. Sam Peckinpah – the director of infamously violent movies (like Strawdogs and the Wild Bunch) — is her gynaecologist!

This is a very trippy, very strange movie. It has lots of horribly dated and vaguely racist shtick, and the story makes no sense whatsoever. But it still feels cool to watch: filled with fantastic dated special effects: a house of mirrors, a swarm of birds, Barbara insanely driving her electric wheelchair in endless circles. It climaxes with a bug-eyed John Huston having his Close Encounters moment with the shooting stars.

Total kitsch, but funny.

Mitty_PosterThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Dir: Ben Stiller

Walter (Ben Stiller) is a milquetoast mama’s boy and a longtime employee of Life Magazine. He lives vicariously through the exciting photos he processes in a windowless basement room (he’s in charge of “negative assets” — photo negatives, that is). Instead of a pocket-protector he wears a bad windbreaker. In his frequent daydreams and fantasies, he sees himself as an international adventurer, a “real man” who will stand up to any bully. But in reality he’s lonely, middle-aged and single. He longs for a relationship with a new employee, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but can’t seem to connect with her, even on an on-line dating site.

And now he faces a crisis. Life Magazine is folding, except on-line. A douche-y young executive (Adam Scott) is brought in to close it down, and makes Walter into the poster boy for unwanted employees. But when a negative — the cover photo of the final issue — goes missing, Walter takes it upon himself to track it down, wherever it may be. He embarks on a journey by plane, helicopter, boat, secret life of walter mittyskateboard, that takes him up mountains, across shark-filled seas, and past erupting volcanoes, all just to find the missing photo.

Will he find the picture? Will he find himself? And will his journey impress his crush Cheryl?

While the movie is filled with breathtaking scenery, it has little else to recommend it. It’s not that funny, interesting or original (the James Thurber novel is more whimsical and the Danny Kaye musical — 1947 — is more clever). Ben Stiller’s first attempt at Secret Life of Walter Mitty ben stillerdirecting fails to direct himself. He underplays it just when he should be hamming it up. His character comes across as flat, dull and pointless. Shirley MacClaine and Catherine Hahn are fun as his mother and sister but are rarely seen.

And the use of egregious product placement within the plot itself — a certain pizza chain, a cinnamon bun — is as embarrassing as it is flagrant. (Was he that desperate for funding?) It’s not that the Secret Life of Walter Mitty is terrible. It’s totally watchable, especially stunning footage of Icelandic moonscapes. It’s just… disappointing.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens on Christmas Day and The Visitor opens on Dec 30th for a three-day run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,culturalmining.com

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