Sunday, March 10, 2019

Nosh 144: 'A Madea Family Funeral,' 'The Invisibles' & More

David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, new each Friday.

APPETIZER (Reviews: A Madea Family Funeral and The Invisibles)

A Madea Family Funeral
It’s been 14 years since Diary of a Mad Black Woman launched Mabel “Madea” Simmons into movie stardom. Her creator and actor, Tyler Perry, has said that her tenth showcase, A Madea Family Funeral, is the last. Only loyal fans can viably bewail the loss. I have seen just Diary and Funeral, so cannot trace the profitable arc that made Madea a pop icon and Perry a show-biz tycoon (some reports mention $800 million in personal wealth ). No white critic has the identity tools to fully grapple with a 6-foot, 6-inch  force of black comical nature (Perry, inside tent dresses and girdles of thespian blubber). No mere celebrity, Perry-Madea is firmly wedged between two cosmic forces: Jesus (thanks to Perry’s beloved, church-going mother) and Oprah (the media goddess who is Perry’s role model and enabling fan).

Madea’s family remains the same: the men mostly  cheating, glandular animals, whom the women endure and then verbally eviscerate.  Madea, of course, kicks male butt best. She is less dynamic now, her sass sags a little, but when that gun-tongue fires, prepare to die (laughing). A great multi-tasker, Perry has rightly been praised for giving employment to black talent. Mostly he offers equal opportunity to himself.  He lords and ladies as Madea, but also appears as stolid good-guy Bryan, as raunchy old ex-pimp Joe, and as Heathrow, not the British airport but a legless veteran whose hand-held voice enhancer is like a profane PA system. Add Madea’s escort court of female jesters, the snarky little aunts Bam (Cissi Davis) and Hattie (Patrice Lovely).

The oldsters have nearly all the good lines. Their dull juniors hang around looking sexy and providing cheap plot gristle for the veterans to process as randy riffs. One old boy dies, which brings casket gags including posthumously virile Viagra. Such “wit” was fairly vanguard back when Redd Foxx was young. Spike Lee, maybe resenting Perry’s rise as the king (and queen) of sitcomical black feminism, sneered about “coonery buffoonery.” Some ghosts do gather, from Moms Mabley, Amos ‘n Andy, even the giddy drag humor of Milton Berle’s TV prime.  

As for style, nothing: mediocre shots, and sets that are like vaguely sepia offspring of the Hallmark channel. Perry is welded to formula. Madea’s sermon-like rouser, about male guilt and female empowerment, is the familiar go-girl gospel. Still, give credit. Once a kid who suffered a very mean father, but survived thanks to his mother and her tough, funny, churchy friends (and his own wits), Tyler Perry made a career, a franchise, a fortune and a character who merits lingering affection. Don’t bet on there not being prequels or sequels in Madea’s future.        

The Invisibles
In recent years we have had amazing opportunities to consider how politically stupid people can be, caught in slop buckets of emotional “thinking” and junk propaganda. But they are not the worst. Not as long as there are still Holocaust deniers. Almost 75 years after Hitler’s inferno, there is immense evidence (ovens, cellars, graves, inventories, orders, plans, photos, memoirs, archives) beyond the dead and near-dead found in 1945. Add a bumper crop of credible books, plays and films. And yet, some fools argue that Hitler never planned to exterminate the Jews and others.

To the encyclopedic denial of the deniers add The Invisibles, a movie saluting four German Jews who removed their stigmatizing yellow stars and slipped through Berlin’s Gestapo net, even after Dr. Goebbels proudly declared the capital Judenrein (free of Jews) – about a fourth of the 7,000 secret Jews would survive the war. They lived at extreme risk, faking “Aryan” identities, aided by some other Jews, Communists and gentile Germans (one runs a movie theater). German director Claus Räfle chose some obvious set-ups in his dramatizations, but skillfully integrates them with interviews of the old survivors (some now gone), Nazi newsreels and war footage of Berlin becoming a hell of fire and rubble.

Each subject is movingly vivid, in person and as performed. Like brilliant Cioma Schonhaus, who despite almost caricaturally Semitic looks would survive as a superb forger of documents (and would bike from Berlin to liberation in Switzerland). Hanni Levi dyed her hair blond, and was virtually homeless before finding a brave protector. Ruth Arndt worked as a maid for Nazis (the Soviet soldier who later found her was, providentially, Jewish). Werner Scharff, a feisty radical who escaped from a death camp, bringing news of the Final Solution, is virtually an advance scout for the rise of Israel. Strong in witness, less in art, The Invisibles honors civilian heroism in our era’s most tragic time.  Unforgettable – and undeniable.

SALAD (A List)
Remarkable Black Family Films
From my pale perspective, in order of arrival: Anna Lucasta (director Arnold Laven 1958), Porgy and Bess (Otto Preminger 1959), A Raisin in the Sun (Daniel Petrie 1961), Nothing But a Man (Michael Roemer 1964), A Man Called Adam (Leo Penn 1966), Sounder (Martin Ritt 1972), Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett 1978), To Sleep With Anger (Charles Burnett 1990), Jungle Fever (Spike Lee 1991), Fresh (Boaz Yakin 1994), Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (Michael Apted 1998), DysFunktional Family (George Gallo 2003), The Pursuit of Happyness (Gabriele Muccino 2006) and Fences (Denzel Washington 2016).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
A life-long advocate of black rights, Orson Welles’s cultural affinity began with his love of early jazz. That led to his April 20, 1944 radio salute (on The Orson Welles Almanac) to great, sweet-toned clarinetist Jimmie Noone, invited to debut his “Jimmie Noone Blues.”  But Orson began with: “One of the things we are most proud of on this show is our New Orleans jazz group. The part of the clarinetist Jimmie Noone is going to be taken by Wade Barkley. This music was not just played for dances but to express the whole spirit of a people, at festivals, weddings, churches, at funerals … Yesterday I got a call from Jimmie Noone who told me how proud he was, to be going on our program. Jimmie had a particular reason to be proud, (for) the group was going to play one of Jimmie’s own compositions. Jimmie died suddenly last night. Now, in his honor, his friends are going to play one of his works.” When the piece ended, Orson held his hands up to the studio audience as a signal not to applaud, and then quietly read the 23rd psalm. (From Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
In 1935’s Alice Adams the girlish, nervous Alice (Katharine Hepburn) “natters defensively that ‘Walter tells the most wonderful darkie stories.’ Glib racism pervaded the era. In Casablanca the sensitive, cosmopolitan Ilse (Ingrid Bergman) refers to black singer Dooley Wilson as ‘the boy at the piano.’ Wilson, 56, had been a public performer for 44 years. Alice is no more a true racist than Ilse. Her ‘darkie’ comment underscores her own social marginality.”  (From the Katharine Hepburn/Alice Adams chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)   

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.

In Always Outnumbered…, Laurence Fishburne is brilliant as the ex-con who saves a boy (Daniel Williams). (HBO/Palomar 1998; director Michael Apted, photography by John Bailey.)

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