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The Helena Arkansas Daily World - Helena, AR
  • Movie Man: HBO films offer Black History Month lessons

  • Just in time for Black History Month, HBO is re-releasing some of its original productions on DVD and Blu-ray. Normally, “made-for-TV movie” implies a cheap, half-hearted effort aimed at filling a few off hours in some undesirable programming slot. But HBO has always tried a little harder.

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  • Just in time for Black History Month, HBO is re-releasing some of its original productions on DVD and Blu-ray. Normally, “made-for-TV movie” implies a cheap, half-hearted effort aimed at filling a few off hours in some undesirable programming slot. But HBO has always tried a little harder, putting talented people on both sides of the camera and producing something very close to a real movie.
    That’s why, years later, these films are still worth watching — and not just as history lessons.
    “Thurgood” (2011) In this powerful one-man show, Laurence Fishburne plays Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court. Bringing the same sort of gravitas to this real-life role that he brought to, say, Morpheus in “The Matrix,” Fishburne tells Marshall’s life story, all by himself, onstage at the Kennedy Center. What’s surprising about “Thurgood” is that, as serious as the story is, the show itself is surprising funny, with moments of honest humor and amusing reflection. You don’t usually think of Fishburne as a guy with comic talents, but don’t forget — he did play Cowboy Curtis on “Pee wee’s Playhouse.”
    “The Tuskegee Airmen” (1995) Long before George Lucas brought the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to the big screen in “Red Tails,” HBO produced this movie about the first squad of African-American pilots to fly combat mission in World War II. Once again, Laurence Fishburne takes center stage, but unlike in “Thurgood,” he’s got some strong support this time around, including Andre Braugher, Malcolm Jamal-Warner, Cuba Gooding Jr., Mekhi Phifer and Christopher MacDonald. “The Tuskegee Airmen” lacks the state-of-the-art special effects of Lucas’ “Red Tails,” but its use of stock footage works fairly well, and the cast is strong enough to make the conversation scenes as compelling as the combat. No doubt inspired by the release of “Red Tails,” HBO has re-released “The Tuskegee Airmen” in a deluxe book-style Blu-ray edition with plenty of photos of the actual airmen.
    “The Josephine Baker Story” (1991) It wasn’t all guys making history, of course (and not just guys played by Laurence Fishburne, either). Josephine Baker was a cultural pioneer who went from the mean streets of St. Louis to the stages of vaudeville to the nightclubs of Paris, where she became a legend — and, when she died, was the first American woman to be buried in France with full state honors. It’s a wild story that also includes nude dancing, scandalous love affairs, a pet cheetah, the French Resistance and a skirt made out of bananas, and it’s a shame that the jam-packed life that Baker led isn’t better remembered today.
    By the way, it turns out actress Lynn Whitfield, who plays Baker, was a bit of a cultural pioneer herself. She won an Emmy for her performance — the first African-American woman ever to win for the lead performance in a miniseries or TV movie. HBO’s new Blu-ray includes a commentary track featuring Whitfield, writer Ron Jutchinson and producer Alisa Taylor.
    Page 2 of 3 - ‘Take Shelter’
    If you watch “Boardwalk Empire” or have seen “Revolution Road,” you know Michael Shannon is one of the most interesting — and most intense actors — working today. I was hoping the critically acclaimed 2011 movie “Take Shelter” would be the perfect vehicle for his unusual talents and make the guy a household name. Unfortunately, while he’s great, the movie itself isn’t.
    Shannon plays Curtis, a loving husband and father who has horrifying nightmares about an impending storm. Realizing he might be losing his mind (his mom battled insanity when he was a child), he still decides to build an underground shelter in his backyard. Because of this, while he waits for the storm, he loses his job, his health insurance and almost his family.
    Shannon is very good in “Take Shelter,” managing to be touching and disturbing. He really makes you see the struggle beneath the skin as Curtis tries to hold onto his sanity and protect his family. But the movie itself is too long and too slow, spending valuable time setting up the story when it should be moving things forward. Take a half-hour or so out of this movie and you’d have something special. As it stands, the only reason worth enduring all two hours is Shannon’s performance.
    Read Will Pfeifer’s Movie Man blog at rrstar.com/blogs/willpfeifer/ or email him at wpfeifer@rrstar.com.
    Some DVDs out Tuesday:
    “Puss in Boots”: Antonio Banderas provides the voice of the swashbuckling feline in this spinoff of the “Shrek” series that got better reviews than any recent “Shrek” film. Other celebs lending their pipes include Zack Galfianakis, Amy Sedaris and Salma Hayek.
    “J. Edgar”: Everyone expected this big-budget biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Clint Eastwood to reap a harvest of Oscar nominations. It didn’t — which explains why you can now rent it on DVD more than a week before the Oscar ceremony.
    “Tower Heist”: Another movie that came with big expectations that it failed to meet. This was supposed to be Eddie Murphy’s comeback, and Murphy was supposed to host the Oscars. Nope on both counts.
    “Martha Marcy May Marlene”: Elizabeth Olsen, the other Olsen sister that no one knew existed, got rave reviews for her performance as a young woman trying to put her life back together after spending time in a cult.
    “Anatomy of a Murder”: Maybe the greatest courtroom drama of all time, starring Jimmy Stewart, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott and Lee Remick. It’s out in an extras-loaded disc from Criterion. Look for a review in next week’s Movie Man column.
    Page 3 of 3 - And CDs
    Sinead O’Connor, “How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?”: Remember when she recorded that Prince song? Or when she tore up that photo of the pope on Saturday Night Live? That was a long, long time ago.
    Buckethead, “Electric Sea”: This is the follow-up to Buckethead’s previous CD, “Electric Tears.” Between those titles and the guitar sounds on the discs themselves, I think Mr. Buckethead has a bit of a theme going.
    Soundtrack, “Safe House”: Put on this soundtrack and pretend you’re being chased around the world with rogue agent Denzel Washington. Wouldn’t that be fun?
    The Chieftains, “Voice of Ages”: This disc celebrating the Chieftains’ 50th anniversary (wow!) includes appearances by Bon Iver and the Decemberists.
    — Will Pfeifer
    Sources: thedigitalbits.com; tophitsonline.com
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