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Thursday, September 8, 2016

THREE MOVIE REVIEWS from the Duluth Reader Weekly

Frankie & Alice

With all the talk recently about famous people transgendering, no one ever thought of a story idea where a lead character has a multiple personality disorder and transfers between a female Black housekeeper to a debutante, Southern white aristocrat, crossing racial composition.   No one had to reach for that poignant storyline because Geoffrey Sax, a Canadian filmmaker, took a true story portraying a woman who suffered from a dissociative identity disorder and presented it onscreen.  Halle Berry, a seasoned actress, was able to command all three personalities wrapped into one person including a 7 year old genius who had an IQ aptitude of 156.   The real African American Frankie, who grew up in Savannah,  Georgia in which her mother was a servant in a white household, had at least two traumatic teenage experiences that split her personality into fractured states.  She fell in love with the prominent white family’s son, ran away with him, and got pregnant by him.  This happened when she was age 15 in 1957 in the Deep South.  Two deaths resulted from that social risk and taboo tryst.  Her boyfriend died in a car crash while she was distracting him in the front seat.  She later gave birth to his child and her mother killed the infant after she delivered it a motel no less.   There is a lot of pivotal positioning within the Murdoch family in one of the opening scenes as Francine (Frankie) Murdoch seems to be the mother’s favorite when she visits her on her birthday and presents her with an elegant mother’s necklace featuring two birthstones for her two daughters.  Chandra Wilson who plays Maxine Murdoch, Frankie’s sister, seems to have the full time burden of caring for her mother in their South Central home while Frankie scoots in and out of their lives as a go go dancer who makes good money and is the centerpiece of men’s lust at a sleazy strip joint in Hollywood.  Phylicia Rashad plays the forgiving mother who seems to embrace Frankie’s every whim and affection.  Frankie also lies frequently to her mother, saying she is attending college or going off to Florida when she is not. After the first scene with her mother, the tables turn when it shows the darker side of Frankie’s existence.  She rakes in hundreds of dollars a night stripping but can’t seem to pay her rent.  She looks through her checkbook and realizes she has spent too much money on a high end gown at a Beverly Hills boutique.  Her landlord pounds on her door to let her know the rent check bounced again.  Fantasy diversion is present in Frankie’s life as she desires to escape the reality of her demeaning position as a stripper.  She dresses up and goes out to clubs, presenting her alter ego Alice as someone who is above Black lower and middle working class.   She leaves the bar one night with a popular bartender who is really just a one night stand.  She steps on one of his kid’s toys and spirals into a hallucinogenic state, flipping out at him and cracking his head open with a vase.  She walks into the street and crumbles in two way traffic.  The cops mistake her for a junkie.  She gets a 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold and finds herself in a Los Angeles County mental hospital.   A perceptive psychologist played by Swedish star Stellan Skarsgård (Dr. Oz) taps into her beauty and presence as she reels him in with her Southern drawl played by her alter ego, Alice.  Alice is the Southern belle who has little toleration for Black people.  Halle Berry seems to have mastered the detachment of self-loathing of her own race as she projected the underbelly of her dual white heritage.  Within the framework of her persona, one sees to only perceive the characteristics of the white woman she intends to possess.  Contoured by her outspokenness in the county mental ward when interacting with her peers, she dances to funky 70s beats while the community television in the lounge shows American Bandstand and Motown favorites.  Frankie can be free in that moment.  The set costume designer personifies that era well through Frankie’s wardrobe.  As the movie progresses, Dr. Oz develops a chalkboard of her primary 3 personalities which displays differences.  She is left handed as the white woman with a lower IQ of 102.  She is right handed as the Black woman with a impressive IQ of 152.   She has 20/20 vision as Frankie and Alice, but Genius, the 7 year old, needs glasses because she is near-sighted.  Genius’ IQ is 156.  Frankie smokes but Alice doesn’t.  To take an IQ test and score differently means that Frankie had to be of those separate minds to embellish her expectations while being that person.   The movie moves along at an acceptable plot driven pace but it is the nuances and quirkiness of the characters that hold the audience attention.  Dr. Oz drifts off with 70s style headphones with jazz any chance he gets.  His doting secretary can never quite penetrate his melancholy and emotional distance.  His primary companion is his cat.  As a doctor, he has a nice home but detaches from materialism as he obsesses about helping his most complex patient, Frankie.   Frankie, who comes off self sufficient in the first few scenes of the movie as a chain smoking, self liberated woman who stands up to intrusive men, later cracks in her Southern Belle gown as she is admitted a second time to the county mental hospital after attempted to stab a wedding guest at her former lover’s (Pete)  sister’s wedding.  After seeing Pete’s sister at the wedding, Frankie seems to have blackout moments that put her in a translucent state.  She is charged with assault with a deadly weapon but is later committed to the County mental hospital under certain research conditions.  The head psychiatrist is not thrilled with her presence and notices the obsession of Dr. Oz.  He questions if Dr. Oz is really treating the patient for her own benefit within the County budget or if it’s his personal pet project.   The psychiatrist releases Frankie after the criminal charges are dropped without notifying Dr. Oz.  He goes and finds Frankie after visiting her mother and sister. The final climax in the movie comes when Dr. Oz puts Frankie in a hypnotic state.   Halle Berry shows her full range of acting skills as she demonstrates childbirth, the traumatic death of her boyfriend, Pete, and the subtle extinguishing of the life of a newborn by the hands of her mother.   That epic moment comes as the screen shows a flashback of Frankie giving birth in a motel as the mother takes a crying baby, smothers it and wraps it up for the garbage.  Trauma of this nature makes it evident that many people could be candidates for mental health issues beyond their grasp, taking one in fateful directions.   Geoffrey Sax handled the material well and the aspect of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) with his scrupulous subject, Halle Berry.  Berry herself has had to straddle the dual world of Black and White ancestry.  He talent led her to the first Oscar for a female Black lead in Monster’s Ball.  The more psychologically twisted movie parts she takes on such as  Gothika, the clearer vision we have of a fully embraced actress that can create dimensions in the audience imagination to grip them for weeks after her commanding spell she has on all who embrace her skill and charms.
(with Halle Berry)

Anita - A documentary of Anita Hill

Awkward and offensive.  The words and testimony of Anita Hill trailed through the echoed sound-trapped chamber of the ancient building beyond the microphone while her soft doe-like eyes resounded a brazen tale of workplace inappropriateness that ranged from descriptive male parts to the mention of misplaced pubic hair.  The documentary “Anita” written, produced and directed by Freida Mock was vacuum packed contents revealing pressure stoked Senate Judiciary confirmation proceedings  to investigate the true character of Clarence Thomas, a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, hand-picked by George H.W. Bush in 1991.  The clash of the farm raised youngest girl of 13 from Oklahoma with respective Southern Baptist manners to the nostril flaring commanding presence of Clarence Thomas was a study in contrasts in itself.  The documentary opened with a fire of questions Anita Hill was submitted to by a conservative crop of Senate members who had the gender equality bent of a rusty rake.  Anita Hill was submitting testimony out in the open about her experience as a subordinate employee under Clarence Thomas in the Department of Education and the EEOC where they both worked.  There was an FBI leak to the public about her allegations against Mr. Thomas in the workplace and it landed her in the spotlight under stinging lights to a body of aging white men, all elected officials.  She was sincere about her purpose to present Clarence Thomas as a person who had blotted morality to the point where his judgment may be impaired to undertake the most prestigious level of court decision making in the country.    Professor Charles Ogletree, a Black lawyer who was the lead attorney at the Harvard School of Law decided to stand by Professor Hill as there were no men of her own race who would.  After all, she was damaging the potential reputation of the first male Black nominee to the highest court in the land.  Many of her colleagues tried to sway her not to testify.  Ogletree stated “She’s been sexually harassed most of her professional life and she had to keep it a secret like so many women.”  That didn’t stop Howell Heflin, Democratic Senator from Alabama to ask “Are you a scorned woman?  Do you have a martyr complex?”  Those searing words fell upon the audience like a ton of stonewalled bricks.  Anita Hill’s perplexed glaze at the body of men who were both invoking and questioning her practically put her in a paralyzed position.  That, coupled with the presence of senators like Alan Simpson of Wyoming who cross examined her like a defendant, asking how she dared to follow Clarence Thomas to the next government assignment after he had treated her so badly.  He said, “I have papers sent to me from all over the country in the form of letters and faxes, even from Tulsa from her classmates saying ‘Watch out for Anita Hill.’”    The movie started out with that raw testimony and descriptions like Long Dong Silver and the size of Thomas’ self proclaimed penis as he tried to lure Anita into his sexual orbit.  A breach she may have made was not reporting it as they were both civil rights appointees to protect similar cases of age, race, gender and other categorical discrimination situations.  The film director Freida Mock took edited chunks of interviews one on one with Hill twenty years later to fill in the pieces of her life and demeanor that was not necessarily to be public in scope or revealed at the time.  Anita Hill was a private person in the rural sense she grew up in.  She was teaching contracts at the University of Oklahoma in Norman by the time the legacy of Clarence Thomas brought her in the limelight.  The move unraveled her life from a back aging process.  The closer to the end of the film, the more we learned about her childhood.  Her family is close.  She has a white boyfriend currently.  It showed Anita giving a tour of the family childhood farm.  Her mamma called her stubborn and it showed excerpts of her attending her niece’s wedding in an Oklahoma Southern Baptist church.  The back reel process was similar to the life of Benjamin Button.  The legacy of the conflict between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas which was a private matter that became public was representative of more than one kind of struggle.  It was the open sore that launched the whole movement for companies to have sexual harassment policies established in the workplace.  It was a Black on Black miscarriage of justice in that it was a Black woman going public against an accomplished Black male who had worked hard to overcome barriers to achieve his own success.  There was an aura during the Senate Judiciary Committee that when Clarence Thomas spoke, the room was silent and the male committee members were attentive.  When Thomas unleashed his assault and shaming finger pointing at the Senate members saying that history has played out those old metaphors of a Black man bragging about his sexual prowl-ness which ultimately led to a high tech lynching on his character because that is exactly what the system would produce: an undermining of a successful Black man.  John W. Carr, a retired Black partner of Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett, stated “ What about the legal lynching of Black women? Thomas was groomed by the White House.  He was part of the establishment if not the establishment himself.  He was one step down from the President.“  Jill Abramson, the Executive editor of the New York Times said, “It was no longer the sexual harassment of Anita Hill but the racial victimization of Clarence Thomas.”  Abramson said “Senator Alan Simpson left it open by stating the truth is unknowable, we may never know who was told the truth and then reduced it to a he said, she said game.”    When Anita Hill flew back to Oklahoma, she was greeted by hundreds of supporters.  She said “Despite the high cost involved, it is worth having the truth emerge.”  A few days later when Clarence Thomas was elected to the U.S. Supreme Court by 52-48, she was interviewed outside her home.  She refused to comment on his victory but stated,  “This is an important dialogue and it should not end here.”  After receiving death threats, bomb threats, attempts by Republicans to dismantle her tenure at the University of Oklahoma and more, she eventually transferred to Brandeis University in Massachusetts where she taught women studies and public policy.  She has always spoken protectively and highly of her students.  Teaching was her model of perfection and utmost pursuit.  While speaking around the country and having honorary engagements in her name, gender equality has gone from a movement to an institutional thought line due to one woman’s bravery.  In a time when sexual harassment was not even a household name, Anita Hill opened the door for Americans to face themselves and their actions in the workforce.  Sexual harassment claims rose an average of 5,000 a year between 1991 when she gave her testimony to 1996.   Clarence Thomas may have received the throne of judicial authority but Anita Hill reserves the legacy of a reflective character of dignity that no smear campaign has been able to make an inroad in her long walk to freedom and what she says was “finding her voice.”  It’s a voice she’s had to fight for and one other women have embraced.   Grade A

“Good People”

Released on DVD/Netflix: Oct 28, 2014

The premise seems ordinary.  A young American couple transplants to London, England to engage in renovating the wife’s family home while living in a dump.  She is an elementary school teacher and her husband is a contractor.  Contrasted with the image of Omar Sy, a chiseled African god-like figure draped across the opening credits like a power lord of the new European world order.  Omar Sy plays Khan, not one to be usurped with as established in the first scene. Khan is trying to stay one step ahead of Jack Witkowski, played by Sam Spruell, your typical flouride free broken tooth blymie from South London neighborhoods such as Southwark or Croydon.  Jack Witkowski and his gang have stolen over 220,000 pounds of money and drugs from Khan in a strip joint no less.  One of Jack’s men turn on him, shoots his partner in the face and takes off with the money.  The staging is violent and there is little breathing room in this harrowing plot for the viewer.  Ben Tuttrle plays Francis Magee, the one who stole the goods. He is even a more down and out aging Londoner with a drug problem.

He lives in the basement of Anna and Tom Wright, the young American couple.  One day they find him dead and overripe with a most unpleasant odor.  Tom notices one of the ceiling squares off kilter in Ben’s apartment.  He finds stacks of rubber-banded money which he efficiently hides in his own domain.  At first, he stashes it in the stove when a knock alarmingly comes on the door.  It’s Tom Wilkinson, a police investigator named D.I. Halden, looking for Ben.  After scrambling to hide the newly found money, a roll of it is squarely sticking out on the edge of the stove door which the couple hopes to keep concealed.

The Wrights already get an inkling that they may be in too deep but refuse to give up on the idea that their twist of luck is beyond their cautious dreams.  Anna and Tom decided to be prudent and only pay necessary bills while hiding the rest.  Tom pays off the mortgage that is overdue and Anna sneaks some money to visit a fertility clinic.  While trying to maintain composure while diffusing the police investigator, their guilt sweeps through their minds while in bed late at night.  Masterful plotting and dialogue takes place between D.I. Halden with the Chief of Police Ray Martin played by Oliver Dimsdale. Chief Martin doesn’t seem to want D.I. Halden to leverage any inside information on difficult high risk cases.  Halden had a daughter die surrounding a controversial death and it has affected his performance.  Chief Martin seems to have more to hide than what Halden is eager to expose by wanting to finally nail Jack Witkowski who has accumulated many unsolved crimes in London.  One day, Tom Wright comes home and he is met by Jack Witkowski and his brother, Bobby.  Witkowski shows no mercy and automatically assumes Tom Wright is in possession of the money that is missing.  After all, he killed someone else in a bloody pool hall scene to just obtain the address.  At this point of the movie, the unnecessary violence is threat level orange.

The director could have made less graphic choices to unravel the plot beyond brass knuckles and bruised faces.  Psychological thrillers do not have to be executed with blood in each scene.  It raises the intensity of the scenes but there is a blood barometer on how much an audience can take.  (My standard limit is the torture scene with George Clooney in Syriana.)  Needless to say, after Tom is beat up handily, Anna comes home and is doomed to be beaten if she doesn’t reveal the location of the money.  She manages to trick Witkowski to thinking the treasure is hidden on the fifth step up from the basement then uses her stilletos to knock him a good one down the stairs.  Just then, D.I. Holden comes in to save the day.  The Wrights spend the night in the hotel and arrange a plan with the police to return the money.  D.I. Holden wants to nail Witkowski who has an inside protector on the police force, namely Chief Martin.  D.I. Holden knows he must handle this delivery carefully or his career is over.  On the day of the delivery, the park is full of children and joggers.  The Wrights are walking quickly with a tote bag to wait for their cue.  They have let Khan know what is going down as divergent loyalists to him after he explained to Tom Wright that is technically his money.  Khan masked his identity to hire Tom Wright for a contracting job but then came out with the truth once meeting him in person.  The Wrights have a lot of debt collectors and their survival is sketchy.  A police officer begins shooting but he is on Jack’s team and is only impersonating the law.  D.I. Holden gets shot and the Wrights think he is dead.  They run away with the tote after being chased by Khan and Witkowski’s people.  They end up at the renovated house they are working on in the country.  They hatch a plan with tools to collapse the floor and set up other booby traps.  Witkowski and his men show up with Wright’s invitataion.  He falls through the floor in a blade of pointed wooden spears.  His brother gets his feet nailed to the floor through the lower floor power tool handled by Tom.  The Witkowski’s have kidnapped Anna’s best friend and her baby who are the bargaining chip.

There are many bloody moments in the last scene as Tom gets stabbed by Jack before Jack plunges through the floorboards.  They are saved again by D.I. Holden who had snuck out the hospital.  The movie definitely has its moments of strength.  Kate Hudson plays Anna Wright in a believable tone, trusting of her husband, wanting a family but caught in the matrix of bad circumstances.  James Franco comes off as a loving husband with a few deceptive schemes to hide his lack of consistent employment from his wife.  The plot and pacing are executed well.  I thought there would be more to the story with the Khan character as the kingpin, maybe some international drug running undertones, but the action dominates the motives and the money gets recouped by law enforcement.   With an all star cast that contains two Oscar nominees (Kate Hudson, winner; Almost Famous) and Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom), the performances can glorify the gaps of a rather predictable script.   Grade B+

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