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African Heritage Films Brighten Toronto Film Festival

By: Dwight Brown
Originally posted 9/26/2011

The best films of the year made their annual pilgrimage to the 36th annual Toronto Film Festival. Black films, actors and directors were in the mix along with noteworthy general release movies that may make their mark on 2011 ten best lists. The only odd note this year is that Jennifer Hudson’s star vehicle Winnie, about Winnie Mandela, and Violet & Daisy, the directing debut of Geoffrey Fletcher (Oscar-winning screenwriter for Precious), didn’t screen until the last days of the festival, long after the crowds had subsided. Still, films worth talking about abounded…

Dark Girls (***) There’s a schism in the black community, based on color. Light is right, dark is not. A little dark skin girl is directed to drawings of girls who are white, tan, brown and black. When asked who is smarter, she points to the white one. Moments like these underscore how rampant and penetrating racism is in the media, American culture and the black community. Credit director Bill Duke for tackling a pressing subject and using academics and intellectuals to represent the voice of reason. Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair made black women look insipid. Duke’s smart doc, though very academic and not theatrical, makes its subjects look intellectually curious.

The Descendants (***1/2) As his wife lays in a coma, the result of a boating accident, the husband’s (George Clooney) life hits low point after low point. He’s estranged from his daughter and his spouse was hiding a secret. This thoughtful family drama is perfectly written and directed by Alexander Payne who set the story in wondrous Hawaii. Nothing comes easy in this tale of woe, which produces awkward drama and touching comic moments. This is Oscar gold.

50/50 (***) Lots of movies (Terms of Endearment) have chronicled the tragedy and family upheaval cancer causes. Few have focused on invincible twentysomethings. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a deceitful girlfriend and a bad prognosis: spinal cancer. His buddy Kyle (Seth Rogan) becomes his biggest cheerleader. His pushy mom (Angelica Houston) supports him, but he’s in the fight of his life. Producer turned writer Will Reiser based his screenplay on a real experience, which gives this comedy drama a dose of reality.

The Ides of March (**1/2) Political thrillers, by definition, need to thrill. Steady drama just won’t due. Director/actor George Clooney, who won an Oscar nomination for his performance in the taut, edgy suspense film Michael Clayton, stars in this dry depiction of an ambitious governor running for the presidency. People that don’t have his best interest at heart surround him. Ryan Gosling plays the upstart staffer who is consumed by dirty politics. Jeffrey Wright, the finest actor in the movie, portrays a politician who joins Clooney’s ticket. Even sex and a suicide can’t fluff up this dull but well-produced ode to the campaign trail.

Killer Elite (**) Jason Statham, the quintessential anti-hero action star (Transporter series), teams up with Clive Owen and Robert DeNiro in this high-octane, but misguided action/thriller. Statham’s mentor (DeNiro) is taken captive, and Statham, a retired member of Britain’s Elite Special Air Service, springs into action to save him. International locations add a zest that is thwarted by cheesy looking sets, crass lighting and dull cinematography. The script is based on a true story, but it never rises above the B-movie mark. Blame first-time director Gary McKendry for biting off more than he could chew.

Moneyball (***13/) — Pity Brad Pitt’s celebrity overshadows his career. He’s a solid actor, and displays his prowess in this inspiring, fact-based baseball movie about Oakland A’s General Manager Billie Beane who hires players, against conventional wisdom, based on statistics and not their star power. Beane and his assistant, egghead GM (Jonah Hill) are branded heretics for using math, sabermetrics, to propel the As team of misfits to a record-breaking wining spree. Heartwarming, funny, astute dialogue hits a homerun: “We’re the last dog at the bowl. You know how it is, the runt of the litter, he dies.” Robin Wright, Brent Jennings and Stephen Bishop (as David Justice) costar.

Pariah (***) “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.” Such is the case with the teenage black lesbian protagonist Alike (Adepero Oduye) who fights for her identity in the gay world, her school and at home. Nothing comes easy. Her mom (Kim Wayans) hates her masculine traits. Her dad (Charles Parnell) turns a blind eye. Her Brooklyn streets are mean, yet she finds a way to express her genius in English class. Filmmaker Dee Rees examines a part of American culture that has never been explored, with three-dimensional, imperfect characters that stumble and hope to find a ways to stand tall.

Rampart (**) Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is part of a team of renegade L.A. cops in the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH). 70 officers are implicated in misconduct, from murder to robbery. Brown is investigated by Internal Affairs officers (Ice Cube). Oren Moverman, writer/director of the touching film The Messenger, is off his mark. Considering the story, though possibly not the characters, is based on fact, the film feels too artificial and cliché. Even a preponderance of violence and nudity doesn’t help. If “Training Day” was the roadmap for rogue, dirty cops, this derivative movie is a cheesy GPS with lots of defects.

Shame (****) In New York an office worker, Brandon (Michael Fassbinder), has a secret. He’s a sexual addict. Prostitutes. One-night hook-ups. His only aversion to women is a real relationship, which he can’t navigate when he goes on date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie, “American Violet”). Complications grow deeper when his long lost sister (Carey Mulligan), a dope addict, comes to room with him. British director Steve McQueen is an artist. The set design, art direction and cinematography are superb. His direction is exquisite, as he gives his cast room to explore raw emotions and hurt feelings. An African heritage man directed the best film at Toronto.

360 (***) British actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste (TV’s Without A Trace) joins this dazzling ensemble piece that’s filled with characters from around the world. She plays a counselor working with a convict/sexual predator (Ben Foster, The Messenger) who is freed but not ready to assimilate into public life. Their relationship is just one of many in this international tale that’s expertly told by director Fernando Meirelles, the genius Brazilian filmmaker of City of God. Love, sex and infidelity are exhibited by Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Rachel Weisz and Eminem.

To find out more about films at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival go to: www.tiff.net/thefestival

Visit NNPA Film Critic Dwight Brown at www.DwightBrownInk.com

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