Taylor'd Problems

Director: Jay Leggett
Lead Actors: Leon Walker, Brittany, Nikki Leigh, Tiny Lister
Producer: George Akopyan

Plot Synopsis: We meet Leon Taylor on "Contract Day" - when he finds out that his professional football contract as a running back for a non-descript team has been extended for another four years and a whopping $25 million.

As evidenced by Taylor's many spirited celebration dances - this is BIG!

The contract extension means many things: one, that Leon can keep his house in an upper class subdivision. And two, that he can celebrate with the people who matter the most in his life, his wife, his uncle-played beautifully by Tiny Lister of "Friday" fame- and his "boys" at the barber shop - a group of about five or six twenty somethings who were probably friends with Leon growing up.

It also means that those around him who are needy, a.k.a his parent in-laws, and a reality show producer, will literally be knocking on and down his door to get things from him. This, along with the temptations that come with money and power make Jay Z's saying, "mo money mo problems", which he borrowed from Notorious B.I.G., all the more fitting for this young athlete.

Who Would Like It and Why
Young African American Men
I attended the premiere of Episode 1 of this pilot, and I felt that it was made for and by young African American men. The main character is a dominant black male in the height of his powers and fame and earning potential. The world around him is literally eating from his hand.

There are four women in the premiere episode, all of them attractive, and all them are light skinned. They all yearn for Leon sexually and celebrate joyously when he takes off his shirt and shows what he calls "the magic", or his finally toned professional-athlete torso.

Who Might not Like it and Why

White People
Unfortunately, some good comic timing, and some decent acting was blotted out for me by the biased and border-line racist depictions of white people in this script:

1)There was Leon's neighbor, a hopelessly nerdy guy who admits that he is cheating on his (stunningly hot) wife on a regular basis.

2) Then there are the two dopey guys who are on the reality show crew that has invaded Leon's life and home. One is fat and doughy, the other is meek and skinny. In one scene they stand there in awe of Leon with his shirt off, not sure of what to say. In another, they simply invade his refrigerator. "This thing is bigger than my house," says the fat one, who then gets his hand stuck in the refrigerator right when Leon comes in and confronts him. He is ashamed and has nothing to say as Leon lambastes him.

3) Also, Leon's barber seems white, although his beard covers a lot of his face. He also seems dopey and lives, frothy-eyed and mouthed and vicariously through Leon's potential sexual exploits with beautiful women.

4) Leon's mother-in-law is white, and a complete wreck. We realize that she, along with her husband, are bankrupt, and that they need to move in with Leon. Which is fine with her, because she loves seeing Leon with his shirt off. (Have we established a theme yet?)

Then, there is the memorably hot next door neighbor Amber, whose husband is so rich, she has nothing else to do but work out. This is demonstrated in full detail by her sports bra/spandex jogging get-up, that shows off her negative-one body fat percentage.

In one indulgent scene she washes herself and her car for with copious amounts of soapy water for Leon's benefit, and that of the viewing audience. I think it was then that I actually saw her liver and spleen.

This is the cast of proud white characters that the makers of this show have created. I am white, and thirty five years old, and I have never met people like the ones depicted in this show. This tells me that they were shallow caricatures drawn up by writers and directors who don't fully understand white people.

I would like to make a comparison here to the Academy Awards 2104 Best Picture Winner "12 Years A Slave", which managed to depict the most evil and shameful period in modern history for white people, without as many terrible stereotypes. The characters in "12 Years a Slave" were fully developed and believable, even Michael Fassbender's character, who raped and whipped his slaves on a daily basis.

I think the culprit for Taylor'd Problems, more than racism, is lazy writing. These white characters should have been more fully developed, period.

Highlights/Top Scenes

Any scene with Tiny Lister is really good.

He delivers with conviction. He is very funny. Leon Walker did a great job, his comedy is very physical and raw, and he was full of energy.

Also, Jennifer Irene, I think it was, was fun as the reality show producer. She is also very attractive.

She looked a lot like a brunette Jennifer Mccarthy. Overall, there is a strong cast, and a lot to work with in this "fish out of water" new money tale of a successful young athlete. The possibilities are endless.

But, I think the creators of this potential series need to check their urge to aggrandize black people and belittle white people before they can be successful and get picked up by a major network.

Two Mike and Ikes. 

12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve Mcqueen

Lead Actors: Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano

Dede Gardner

Plot Synopsis:

In 1841, Solomon Northup, a freeman, or free African American living in Saratoga, New York, is kidnapped and transported to the deep south where he is forced into slavery. There, for 12 years, he toils on other men's plantations for no pay, and is treated as property.

Partly due to his having been a free man, Northup presents a feisty nature to which most slave owners are not accustomed. This causes Northup even more problems with his slave owners and brings him even more abuse.

(Spoiler Alert)  

What makes Northup's tale even more remarkable is that he did not die a slave like so many others. He lived to tell his tale again as a free man back in Saratoga.

Who Would Like it and Why
First of all, this is the best movie of the year. Period. The only way I would correct that first sentence is to say that it probably is the best movie in the last seven years, or 12 years. It should be called, 12 years since you saw a movie this good!

Why is it such a good movie?

Well, first of all, director Steve McQueen managed to juice masterful performances out of his actors:

Chiwetel Ejofor
turns in the performance of the decade as the wronged man who is determined to survive and not let slavery take his soul. Michael Fassbender is spellbinding as the inept, incompetent, cowardly plantation owner Edwin Epps who mires his slaves right into his own domestic drama.

This movie has been in the theatres since October 18, 2013, so no doubt readers have also read about the performance of Lupita Nyong'o as Patsy. 

She plays an unfortunately beautiful slave who has caught the covetous eye of Epps.  Nyongo'a won the Academy Award for this performance. Below is her acceptance speech.

There are dozens of equally robust and amazing performances, including Benedict Cumberbatch as a plantation owner with a conscience and the great Paul Giamatti as a slave merchant who tells Cumberbatch's character that his conscience goes only as far as his pocket book, or something along those lines.

Also worthy of mention are the dozens and dozens of African American actors who humbled themselves and revisited one of the darkest parts of their collective history to play slaves in this movie.

Their performances were spellbinding, and if I have time I will point out as many as possible. One performance that was small only in length of time on screen was that of a fellow kidnapped slave who tried to organize a mutiny on the river boat taking the kidnapping victims south. 

His eyes told the entire story of a man desperately trying to hold on to his freedom and dignity.

Art Direction and Costuming
While the acting is this movie's chief accomplishment, the costuming and set design set you right plop down inside of one of America's most hideous chapters.

In the antebellum south that director Steve Mcqueen conjures, plantation owners dress as "gentlemen" during the day with their beautiful creamy white, most likely cotton shirts abounding with lacy excess and deep, dark colored jackets and pants that make them look as if they just came from a polo match.

These same gentleman whipped, beat and raped their slaves by night in the privacy of their mansions and plantations. 

In addition to physical brutality and torture, there were also much more indirect methods that the plantation owners used to cow the slaves into submission. 

For example, in several scenes, Fassbender's Epps forces his slaves out of their midnight sleep to dance for him in his mansion while his drunkenness wears off.

Also worthy of note is the editing. Editor Joe Walker does a masterful job of intermingling the times when Northup was free and doting on his children and beautiful wife, earning money as a musician, and the Hell that he finds himself in after he has been kidnapped.

Again, since this movie has been out, many reviewers have noted that Northup's having grown up a freeman and then being thrown into slavery is partly what makes this story so brutal. I agree with that point and Walker did a great job of capturing this dynamic.

I would argue that the transition from freedom to slavery was so grotesque for Northup, that this movie might even fit into the horror genre.

In one sequence, a riverboat that is transporting the kidnapped slaves, most likely from Washington DC down to the deep south to be sold, Walker intersperses clunky, Tom Waitsesque ( as a matter of fact, he might have used Tom Waits) music that goes along perfectly with the powerful churning of the water and the ominous shoving of coal into the engine of the boat. 

All this adds to the kidnapping victim's alienation, sense of abandon and their being taken further and further away from home, the ones they love, and possibly most important - the Mason- Dixon line.

The first moment in Northup's 12 years of slavery is that he wakes up and finds himself in chains after a night of heavy drinking. The second thing that happens to him is that he is savagely beat into submission by one of his captors. This is not a movie for the faint of heart.

Who Might not Like it and Why
There are some extremely violent scenes that rival Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ in terms of the amount of human flesh that is flayed by whips, and also the random acts of violence by the whites on the slaves.

For example, in one scene Fassbender's Epps is watching his favorite slave girl Patsy dance with much lust, and suddenly Epps' jealous wife throws a full jar of liquor straight at the Patsy's head and hits her target. 

Patsy runs off screaming in pain, possibly with a mild concussion. This sort of violence coupled with its injustice and unpredictability can be nauseating for viewers.

But, as McQueen, the director, has said in many interviews now with squeamish journalists - these things happened! 

This movie is a historical count of events and like events that actually happened on plantations in the antebellum south.

I also thought that while just about every other piece of acting was sublime, Brad Pitt's Bass, a wanderer passing by to work on the plantation for a wage, was sub par. He seemed to be doing the same gravelly voiced southerner that he beat us over the head with in Inglorious Bastards, to mediocre results. I did not believe his character, and that was unfortunate.

I only wish that McQueen and the producer had had the courage to cast an actor and not a movie star in what ended up being a pivotal role in a movie that may end up in the Smithsonian museum some day.

In several scenes Pitt's Bass goes head to head with Fassbender's Epps in ideological debate about whether or not slavery is right.

Acting, of course, is not a sport, but teachers will tell you that each scene is a fight. So, this type of scene has a tendency to display the strengths and preparedness one actor has over another. 

Fassbender, who has now been in three movies with Pitt, comes out the clear winner. In some scenes, it seems as if Pitt can't even look Fassbender in the face. Why? Pitt, now a family man with a stunningly beautiful wife, seemed as if his mind was somewhere else, whereas Fassbender was firmly grounded in his role as Epps.

I have seen this weakness before in Pitt. It was in Inglorious Bastards, where he seemed to be doing a caricature and not a  real character. Again, this former "Sexiest Man Alive" sapped a potentially great movie of energy.

Because Mcqueen was so meticulous in his staging of this movie, Pitt's not being invested in his character showed through like a stain an otherwise perfect piece of cloth. While it is not my job to tell Bradd Pitt to retire, I would suggest that he focus a little more on his future roles.

Highlights/Top Scenes
There is a scene where Solomon has just buried a fellow slave who died while picking cotton in the miserable heat. The women in the group of slaves start singing a moving spiritual. 

Mcqueen, in one of many masterful directing decisions, keeps the camera trained on Northup as the spiritual picks up pace and emotion and crescendos. Slowly Northup, a musician by trade, joins in with a beautiful baritone voice, and his verve while singing the song starts picking up and before you know it he is living the song and singing with his entire heart.

As we watch Northup's face and the emotions pass by, it seems as if he makes the decision there and then that he will not die the same way. That is but one interpretation, but suffice it to say any time the camera is trained on Ejiofor's face, it is a wise decision, whatever each individual viewer takes away from it.

One clear message I took from this movie was that you can kidnap a free man out of his environment and shackle him, but you can't necessarily keep him down. This is what Ejiofor's Northup seemed desperate to prove from the moment he first realized he was in chains up until the end of the movie.

Well done to everyone involved, especially to Steve McQueen who is now most welcome to Hollywood's A list of story tellers.

Four Mike and Ikes.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Director: Peter Jackson
Lead Actors: Ian Mckellan, Martin Freeman, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom
Producer: Zane Weiner

Plot Synopsis:
We meet Thorin, Dwarf King, on the run and a wanted man. As he bellies up in a tavern for some food and a drink, we can see several nefarious characters eyeing him. This reminded me a lot of King Aragorn's status during the first Lord of The Rings series, before he proved himself as king.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Ian Mckellan's Gandolf appears in this tavern, and he is a good two feet taller than anyone else.

I, along with most characters in this long Lord of the Rings/Hobbit series, am always glad to see Gandolf. He represents good and light, and if you watched the Lord of the Rings movies, you'll know that he has a talent for saving the day.

In this movie, he warns Thorin of the very real plots afoot to take his life, because he is, after all, an heir to a throne and fortune.

Gandolf also tells of a treasure being guarded by a sleeping dragon in the middle of a mountain. This treasure and a kingdom would go to Thorin, if only he could find someone to help him burglarize a certain stone buried in the treasure.

This scene is Jackson's way of exposing some of the plot. We then fast forward to Thorin in progress to the mountain with his assembled team of dwarfs and one hobbit - the adventurous Bilbo Baggins.

The always game Baggins has been chosed to steal the stone because  of his size, adventurous spirit and his resourcefulness. These are all trademarks belonging to any healthy hobbit. Baggins, also has a small ring in his possession that bestows him with many special powers, one of them being the ability to become invisible

So, Gandolf, Baggins and a surprisingly able and baritone-voiced team of dwarfs embark on an epic Tolkienesque adventure across New Zealand, wherein they meet giant spiders, beautiful and deadly elves, orcs, and the odd people of Lake City.

Who Would Like it and Why
Unapologetic and less critical fans of Tolkien. This Hobbit movie seemed to be a version of Jackson-lite, wherein we have some of the magic that made the Lord of the Rings series so great, but we are somehow lacking the real adult themes and foreboding that gave them staying power.

Who Might Not Like It and Why
There is an entire sequence where dwarfs are bobbing up and down in a white-water river scenario - dodging orc blades. There are "bouncy" sound effects and the orcs seem to have worse aim than the Washington Generals.

Indeed, it is clear that  the orcs are never meant to win or hit anything unless it serves plot development. This makes the movie a bit cartoony in more than one place.

Highlights/Top Scenes
The famous encounter between Smaug, the dragon guarding the treasure, and Bilbo Baggins was well done. The dragon seemed to be little more than a festering egotistical force that withdrew from civilization a long time ago to guard its treasure. It therefore reminded me of some of the older producers spending their dying days bitterly counting their money, trolling for beautiful lovers half their age in the Hollywood hills.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems to be taking over not only Hollywood but the BBC with his popular Sherlock Homes series (a show that costars Martin Freeman) - plays Smaug in this movie.

By that I mean they use his likeness to enhance the expressions of the dragon as it interrogates Freeman's Baggins. This was well done.

I say this knowing that many, many, many literary purists were enraged and furious over the adaptation. I am sure that to them, Smaug was an abomination and should never have been wrestled out of the pages of the original book. But I thought the whole sequence was quite fun.

The scenes in Lake City were rewarding. It was a fishing village with a dark history of its own. The acting and the set decoration were great. 

The dwarves, in general, are very interesting creatures who make up for their short stature with  bravado and bravery, and who also coalesce as a unit quite nicely. 

Evangeline Lilly stepped into a pair of elf pants quite well. She was believable and sexy as an elf captain.

Orlando Bloom seems to only do well under the direction of Peter Jackson. He was great in this movie and managed to have some great fighting scenes. Where were these chops in all the other movies he's done?  

The orcs in this prequel seemed to have more variety than they did in the later Lord of The Rings series. Even though they can't seem to fight and are as feeble-minded as they are feeble-bodied (remember again the Washington Generals parallel I drew earlier, they certainly managed to look scary.

Also, the first song to play in the credits was beautiful and oddly fitting. I thought that was a brave choice to have a singer and guitar music after such an epic movie, but it paid off. 

Grade: Two Mike and Ikes