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Posts Tagged ‘Forest Whitaker’

Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X, Forest Whitaker as Bumpy Johnson, Giancarlo Esposito as Rep. Adam Clayton Powell

“GODFATHER OF HARLEM” (Hulu): The great thing about our current streaming situation is that if you’re willing to wait, just about everything you want to see eventually pops up on one of your subscription sites.

So it is with “Godfather of Harlem,” which debuted in 2019 on Epix (I wasn’t going to subscribe for just one show). Now the first two seasons have migrated to Hulu.

Based on the career of real-life gangster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, the show’s title deliberately  references that greatest of American crime movies, “The Godfather.”

Like that Francis Ford Coppola landmark this is a sprawling saga that contrasts its protagonist’s bloody profession against the shifting currents of his family situation. What makes “Godfather of Harlem” special is its setting — the early 1960s — and its emphasis on Civil Rights and the black experience.

Bumpy is portrayed by Forest Whitaker, whose onscreen charisma helps sell a character who, let’s face it, is getting rich off the suffering of his own people. Bumpy used the notorious French Connection to funnel heroin into the inner city; he seems to have had no qualms about this, even when his own daughter became an addict.

Indeed, my biggest beef with Season 1 is that it totally blows off the moral implications of its hero’s choices.  I’m happy to report that Season 2 finally digs into Bumpy’s moral ambivalence.

What makes the show noteworthy is not its gangster cliches but its rich depiction of an era.  

Bumpy’s main nemesis is Mafia crime boss and dyed-in-the-womb racist Chin Gigante (a marvelously loathsome Vincent D’Onofrio). His two greatest allies are a U.S. Congressman, the womanizing, heavy-drinking Rev. Adam Clayton Powell (portrayed with palpable glee by Giancarlo Esposito) and the Nation of Islam maverick Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), perhaps the most ethically grounded character in sight.

Season One also features a Romeo & Juliet love affair beetween Gigante’s daughter (Lucy Fry) and a black r&b singer (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Race relations being what they were, the description “star-crossed” is wholly appropriate.

The performances are top notch.  Especially loved Chaz Palminteri as mob bigewig Joe Bonanno and the late Paul Sorvino as boss of bosses Frank Costello. Look also for Deric Augustine’s turn as young Cassius Clay.

Jason Segel, Harrison Ford

“SHRINKING” (Apple TV):  How’s this for a pedigree?  

“Shrinking” was created by actor Jason Segel, screenwriter/actor Brett Goldstein (“Ted Lasso”) and veteran TV producer Bill Lawrence (“Scrubs,” “Cougartown,” “Ted Lasso”)…and as you might guess from that lineup, it is wickedly funny with a big ol’ heart.

Segel stars as Jimmy, a recently widowed psychiatrist struggling to serve his patients (among them KC’s Heidi Gardner) while bringing up a teenage daughter (Lukita Maxwell) who sees through his every pathetic ruse.

Sadsack Jimmy shares the mental health suite with his mentor Paul (Harrison Ford…way funnier than I thought possible) and the adorably chatty Gaby (Jessica Williams). Those who maintain you have to be a bit crazy to succeed in the psychology racket will find ample confirmation.

(Just occurred to me…”Shrinking” is the old Bob Newhart-as-psychologist show on steroids…with a Viagra chaser.)

Jimmy’s circle also includes his sardonically-inclined neighbors (Christa Miller, Ted McGinley),  a War on Terror veteran with anger issues (Luke Tennie) and Jimmy’s enthusiastically out attorney (Michael Urie).

As was the case with both “Scrubs” and “Ted Lasso,” I’ve fallen in love with the show’s characters — not to mention its vaguely stressed-out  humanism and its intriguing look into the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of psychiatry.

Mark Addy (center)

“THE MURDERS AT WHITE HOUSE FARM” (HBO Max): The 1985 murders of five members of an Essex farm family are the basis for this six-episode series featuring the great Mark Addy (Robert Baratheon for you “GoT” geeks) as a rumpled police detective who bucks his superiors and public opinion to dig into the case.

In real life things were resolved with the conviction of a family member, but the series has just enough flexibility to leave us wondering if, in the end, they got the right guy.  

In any case, the show offers a pantry full of interesting characters and a whole slew of good perfs.

| Robert W. Butler

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“BLACK PANTHER” My rating: B- 

134 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Some films are noteworthy for their artistry.

Others earn a niche in the history books for their cultural footprint, for staking out sociological territory at just the right moment, for tapping into the zeitgeist.

Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” leans heavily toward the second category.

Narratively this is a  typical Marvel release, a superhero origin story that, as all Marvel movies must, ends with an extended fx-heavy smackdown.

But  there’s far more to “Black Panther.”  The first Marvel movie starring a black superhero, featuring a predominantly black cast and backed by with a heavy presence of African Americans in key creative roles,  the picture arrives at a moment when America’s oppressed groups — galvanized by an onslaught of alt-right rhetoric and rampant assholism — are asserting themselves with renewed determination.

Last year  “Wonder Woman” introduced a whole slew of female issues into the superhero universe; in retrospect it feels like a calling card for the “Me Too” movement.

“Panther” does pretty much the same thing for African Americans.  Think of it as Black Pride on steroids.

Based on the character created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the yarn introduces us to Wakanda, an African nation that to all outward appearances is pretty much your Third World backwater.

Ha.

Thanks to the nation’s supply of vibranium — an element brought to Earth in a meteor — Wakandans live in a high-tech paradise.  The clothing, artwork and architecture may be right out of “The Lion King,”  but behind the scenes vibranium provides unlimited energy, healing power and weaponry. Invisible aircraft, even.

What’s more, in conjunction with tribal spirituality, vibranium imparts to the Wakandan king  superhuman abilities, transforming him into the all-but-invincible Black Panther.

All these wonders are hidden behind a shimmering energy wall which protects Wakanda from the outside world  (also the case with the Amazonian homeland in “Wonder Woman”). By keeping to themselves the prosperous and happy Wakandans ensure that  vibranium never falls into the hands of weapons-crazy Westerners who, it’s obvious, are their inferiors in just about every category worth measuring. (more…)

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Amy Adams

Amy Adams

“ARRIVAL” My rating: B+

116 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

In “Arrival,” space aliens — as they have so often in our cinematic past — come to Earth with questionable intentions.

Only this time their reception is less Ridley Scott than Stanley Kubrick.

“Arrival” may be the most thought-provoking science fiction film since “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Like Kubrick’s cryptic classic, it will leave some viewers puzzled and perhaps dissatisfied. In lieu of ray guns and souped-up space jalopies, director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies,” “Prisoners,” “Sicario”) depicts massive societal and personal dislocation and ruminates about the very nature of time.

Happily, “Arrival” does all this with a final emotional jolt that will linger in the viewer’s mind for … well, maybe forever. Great movies can do that.

The adventure begins with a dreamy, time-leaping sequence of a mother (Amy Adams) interacting with her daughter from infancy to adolescence. On the soundtrack this woman, Louise, talks about beginnings.

Then we’re taken to the present day where Louise, a world famous linguist, arrives in her college lecture hall to find that practically nobody has come to hear her talk about the Portuguese language. The absences are soon explained — 12 magnificent spaceships (they resemble gigantic elongated eggs, or maybe black mango seeds) are now hovering at various points around the globe.

In just a couple of brilliantly conceived and edited minutes Villeneuve evokes the shock and widespread disruption caused by the realization that we are not alone.

Populations panic. Stock markets tumble. There are runs on bottled water and batteries. Looting and rioting.

Yes. This is exactly what would happen.

For Louise it gets personal when a military bigwig (Forest Whitaker) arrives at her doorstep to announce that her country needs her. Mankind must figure out how to converse with the newcomers. (more…)

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Jake Gyllenhaal in "Southpaw"

Jake Gyllenhaal in “Southpaw”

“SOUTHPAW”  My rating: B- 

123 minutes  | MPAA rating: R

Terrific acting and fight film cliches battle to a split decision in Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw,” yet further proof both of Jake Gyllenhaal’s awesome range and of the odds against making a truly original boxing picture.

Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing as Billy Hope, who turned a tormented childhood on the streets into a lucrative career as the light heavyweight champion of the world.

Billy is not a subtle fighter. Fueled by anger, he absorbs punch after punch until his opponent is worn out, then murders the bum. This strategy usually leaves him with a championship belt and a face like a raw Big Mac.

In contrast to his rage in the ring, Billy’s home life is actually kind of normal.  Yeah, he lives in a gated multimilliion-dollar compound outside NYC, but his relations with his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), whom he has

been with since his days in juvie, and their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) are practically blissful.

But happy homes don’t make for dramatic movies. The screenplay by Kurt Sutter (creator of cable’s “Sons of Anarchy”) relies on over-the-top melodrama to remove McAdam’s Maureen from the scene, setting Billy on a downward spiral that will see him lose his boxing license, his title, his wealth and his mind.

Worse of all, he loses Leila to the child welfare folks.

Mostly “Southpaw” is about how — having been reduced to a lowly and primitive state –Billy slowly comes back. His Yoda in all this is Tick (Forest Whitaker), who used to train big-time boxers but now operates a rundown gym catering to at-risk kids.

Under Tick’s tutelage Billy learns to control his anger, employ defensive tactics (apparently for the first time), and develop the patience necessary both to win in the ring and earn the trust of a dubious family court judge.

(more…)

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