Tag Archives: James Earl Jones

Soul Man (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Pretending to be black.

Mark Watson (C. Thomas Howell) has been accepted into Harvard Law School, but just before he’s ready to attend his father (James B. Sikking) states that he won’t help to pay for it forcing Mark to try and find other avenues of funding. He eventually decides to take some tanning pills, which makes his skin darker and then apply for a scholarship only available to African American students. After getting the money he continues with the charade, but encounters many problems along the way that he wasn’t expecting.

This is one comedy that hasn’t aged well at all. At the time of its release it wasn’t considered too great to begin with and I avoided it, but now almost 30 years later the blackface plot line has made it a bad stain on the careers of those involved particularly the producer, writer and director who were all white and apparently thought they were ‘woke’ and making something ‘socially relevant’, but really weren’t. However, even if you get past the politically incorrect scenario this is still a really bad movie either way.

The basic premise is the biggest problem as Howell never ever effectively looks black, Egyptian maybe, but more like some white guy wearing a tacky wig and who stayed under the sun lamp too long. The fact that anyone could believe that he was really black for even a second is patently absurd as his skin is more of a dark beige color and his other facial features never change, which makes the scene where his own parents don’t even recognize him all the more stupid.

The idea of having him intentionally overdose on tanning pills just brings up even more questions. For instance if he takes more than the recommended dosage wouldn’t that cause some dangerous side effect and how exactly is he able to turn white again at the end as overdosing on the pills would’ve most likely have caused some sort of long term health risk to either his system or skin.

The fact that he’s able to get the scholarship right away is pretty ridiculous too. Don’t applicants have to go through some sort of background check before they get accepted or do they simply get handed the money the minute they walk in and ask for it like it seems here and wouldn’t this background check then expose that he was really white?

This also has to be the dumbest guy ever to get accepted into Harvard. I’m not saying the character has to necessarily conform to the nerd stereotype, but the guy comes off like a world class slacker from the beginning who proceeds to say and do one clueless thing after another until you wonder if he’d ever be accepted into junior college let alone an Ivy League one.

James Earl Jones’ performance, where he channels the black version of Professor Kingsfield from The Paper Chase, is one of the film’s few bright spots. I also enjoyed Rae Dawn Chong who plays Howell’s potential love interest and who comes off as far more real and multi-dimensional than any of the other characters in the film to the point that she should’ve been made the star while scrapping Howell and his silly shenanigans completely.

Not only does the film fail to offer any true meaningful insight into race relations, but it manages to stereotype white people in the process particularly the two white male students who are constantly getting caught making racist jokes about black people. Is the viewer actually supposed to believe that this is all these two guys ever talk about as it certainly is made to seem that way, which is just one more example as to why this has to be one of the clumsiest, most unfunny and most poorly thought out satires ever made.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: October 24, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Steve Miner

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Comedians (1967)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life under Papa Doc.

Based on the novel by Graham Greene the film centers on Brown (Richard Burton) an emotionally detached British hotel owner residing in Haiti. He has spent years avoiding the political turmoil of the region and the Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier regime, but finds now that the walls may finally be closing in. He must deal with the suicide of a government official that occurs on his grounds in his pool as well as a visiting American couple (Paul J. Ford, Lillian Gish) with strong political connections. His ongoing affair with the wife (Elizabeth Taylor) of a South American diplomat (Peter Ustinov) risks him further trouble as does his friendship with an illegal arms dealer (Alec Guinness).

The film ebbs-and-flows unevenly and isn’t compelling despite some strong moments here and there. What grabbed my attention was the vivid on-location shooting that gives the movie an interesting visual appeal. Because of the political environment going on in Haiti the producers were not allowed to film there and instead choose the small African country of Benin, which was still called the Republic of Dahomey at the time, as their substitute setting. The contrast of the serene tropical landscape juxtaposed with the abject poverty of its citizens is stunning with the most impactful moment coming when they visit Duvalierville a planned city with expensive buildings and homes being constructed with poor homeless people scurrying around begging for money as the structures go up.

The acting though by Richard Burton is atrocious and a major hindrance. I like Burton and consider him in most productions that he has been in to be a very strong actor, but here he doesn’t seem into the part at all. His presence is quite aloof and conveys little emotion to the point that he seems to be just walking through his role and mouthing his lines.

Taylor on the other hand is quite strong and manages to speak with an authentic sounding German accent. She made many bad film choices later her in career that ended up stigmatizes her acting reputation, but if given the right script and a competent director she could clearly convey an onscreen brilliance, which she does here. Unfortunately she is not seen enough and appears only sporadically throughout. If this is supposed to be a Taylor/Burton picture then the two needed equal screen time and prominent roles instead of one being relegated to what seems like only a minor part.

The supporting cast is excellent and this is a great chance to see up-and-coming African American actors when they were just starting out including: Raymond St. Jacques, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, George Stanford Brown, and Zakes Mokae.  Gish and Ford offer a surprisingly profound moment when they follow a procession of singing happy young children into a forum for what they think will be a religious ceremony only to find to their shock that everyone is there to witness a firing squad execution instead.

The story has its moments, but I would’ve preferred if it had been a little more focused. At times it is compelling, but it drifts back and forth between too many different story threads and never comes together as a whole not to mention a limp ending that leaves no impact.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 31, 1967

Runtime: 2 Hours 31 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Peter Glenville

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD (Box Set), Amazon Video, YouTube

End of the Road (1970)

end of the road

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review:  Too weird for words.

A bizarre adaptation of John Barth’s already bizarre novel detailing the story of a man (Stacy Keach) who goes into a catatonic state at a train station and is then sent to a strange mental hospital run by a weirdo named Doctor D (James Earl Jones). After he is considered to be ‘cured’ he takes a job as a college professor and proceeds to have an affair with the wife (Dorothy Tristan) of one of his colleagues (Harris Yulin).

It has been noted that author Barth disliked this film version of his novel and it is easy to see why. It gives only a basic outline of the story while leaving out all of the deeper meanings. It also tried to tie the story to the chaos and rebellion of the 60’s even though the book was written in 1955. The final result is a confusing mess that never comes together. The characters behave strangely and with no understanding to their motivations it becomes impossible to relate to them or anything else that goes on. Most viewers, especially those that are not familiar with the book, will easily become confused after the first five minutes if not sooner.

On the positive end the filmmaking style is refreshingly audacious in a way that is rarely seen anymore. Everything is thrown out there no matter how outrageous with little regard to mainstream acceptance. The kinetic imagery and music has a certain hypnotic effect that keeps you connected to it even if you don’t understand what is going on. The film culminates with a very intense, grizzly, and tasteless abortion sequence that will not be soon forgotten by anyone who sees it. Jones gives one of the most bizarre and over-the-top performances that you will ever see anywhere and anyone who is a fan of his or has an interest in acting MUST see him in this film.

It’s a misfired experiment that manages to be enough of a period artifact to make it interesting as a curio. It definitely has the ability to stay with you after it is over.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 10, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated X

Director: Aram Avakian

Studio: Allie Artists Pictures

Available: DVD