Couch Trip

Feb 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

Mr. Untouchable
Magnolia Home Entertainment

He was a dimpled black man who smelled good, according to his ex-wife, but admitted ex-junkie Nicky Barnes was a bit more than that. He ran the multimillion-dollar coke and heroin trade in New York City throughout the '70s, ran it with the aplomb, tact and style of a blaxpolitation film caricature, back when "nigger" didn't end with an "a."

As this vivid documentary illustrates, Barnes had deals with everybody: City officials, cops and on down the list to the bottom of the street trade. His deals anointed him a feared, respected — and very rich — man. He was dubbed Mr. Untouchable by The New York Times in 1977, was summarily busted, and dropped a march of dimes on his peers to the feds.

Squealer Barnes entered the witness protection program where he still resides, and thus is pictured here only in silhouette, or with dull and repetitive shots of his hands extending into gold cuff links and a glittering Rolex. Unless you're Marlee Matlin, talking hands just aren't that sexy.

Director Marc Levin does make great use of period footage of grimy New York in the 1970s — the stuff you saw in Midnight Cowboy, but better — as well as interviews with Barnes' counterparts. In short? Morally, the man was a piece of shit. But his story is well worth a rental. —Peter Gilstrap

Africa Unite
Palm Pictures

The main selling point of this film honoring Bob Marley may be the music, but the true highlight — and message — of Africa Unite can be found in the uplifting footage from the event it documents. Spearheaded by Rita Marley as a way to bring together the disparate, progressive voices of the African continent, Africa Unite first convened in Addis Ababa in 2005 with a series of concerts and, more importantly, conferences. Going into the horrors that the colonial powers imposed on Africa, as well as presenting ideas for overcoming their lasting effects, the documentary passages of Africa Unite contain some powerful and inspirational content. Of course, Bob Marley casts a mighty spiritual shadow over it all, and his revolutionary, pro-Africa message informs both the discussions and the musical performances. Unsurprisingly, his offspring, protégés and colleagues get quite a bit of stage time, but the musical numbers serve primarily as entertainment interludes between the more message-driven core of the film. For those less interested in the activist nature of the movie, the DVD contains 11 performances by various Marley family members, along with songs by Angelique Kidjo, Cedella Booker and the I-Threes. —Jason Ferguson

Kurt Cobain: About a Son
Shout Factory

Note to music journalists: Don't erase your interview tapes. You never know if that emo band you're talking to about its new album may become a generational icon. Then you can use your tapes to make a movie. An insubstantial, abstractionist movie, but a movie nonetheless. About a Son is far from a typical rock doc, and while director AJ Schnack certainly intended it to be an elegant, elegiac homage to Kurt Cobain, there's nothing —repeat, nothing — here to convince anyone that the pop-grunge icon was anything more than a self-centered, self-pitying mess. About a Son is built from three primary elements: interview tapes made by Michael Azerrad for his Nirvana book Come as You Are, a disjointed soundtrack that finally puts Ben Gibbard and Arlo Guthrie in the same sentence, and achingly beautiful scenery shots of the foggy Northwest world Cobain inhabited. The whole affair falls prey to a sense of detached hero-worship (which Cobain would certainly have coughed up a little blood at), as it seems to imply that Cobain's legend prevents anyone other than himself from commenting on his life. Though he obviously felt comfortable with Azerrad, Kurt Cobain was no fool. He knew these quotes were being collated for a book and his young voice is plainly striving to imbue everything with some sort of greater meaning. There isn't. Cobain was a sweet, weird dude who wrote great songs, got famous and freaked out. About a Son tries valiantly and dramatically to make a larger case than that, but, unfortunately, it ends up making Cobain look like much less of a well-rounded person than he actually was. —Jason Ferguson

The Stanley Kramer Film Collection

For a box devoted to a single filmmaker, The Stanley Kramer Film Collection hardly exudes a singular voice — probably because only two movies in this stylistically inconsistent hodgepodge are actually directed by Kramer. The other three are simply produced by the famed Hollywood craftsman, defined as Kramer works only by a kind of moralistic branding that isn't always welcome.

Of the two films Kramer directed, the most anticipated is surely the two-disc, 40th anniversary edition of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, boasting informative featurettes like A Love Story of Today, A Special Kind of Love and Stanley Kramer: A Man's Search for Truth. The film itself, however, while an effective attack on armchair liberalism and a window into repressed bigotry, is still a jackhammer-subtle morality play with the rhythms of an after-school special. Mediocre Kramer titles like this one (as well as Pressure Point and Judgment at Nuremburg) inevitably climax in a sermon, substituting dry pedantry for emotional verisimilitude. The other Kramer-directed title here, the ensemble drama Ship of Fools, fares much better 40-some years later, with a stellar international cast (Oskar Werner, Simone Signoret, Lee Marvin) leading an engrossing story of prejudice, addiction, social hierarchy and the erosion of love aboard a German-bound ship.

The rest of this mixed bag includes the overrated motorcycle message movie The Wild One. A young Marlon Brando is a brooding powder keg of sexual repression, but his compelling presence can't save a dated narrative. The collection's low point is the unintentionally hilarious film adaptation of the coming-of-age stage play Member of the Wedding. Julie Harris' profoundly awful central performance (age 26 and playing 12) anticipates Elizabeth Taylor at her most over-the-top, forming an amazing synthesis of cartoonish acting and ludicrous writing.

Which leaves the set's only masterpiece, the joyous 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. A boy's powerlessness against his racketeering piano teacher (Hans Conreid's tyrannical, titular Terwilliker) is manifested in a brilliant Dr. Seuss-designed musical daydream that imagines German expressionism as a child's fantasia. Seuss merges modern architecture, dance and ice skating with visual and aural experimentation and sophisticated songwriting. And best of all, unlike the rest of the films here, it doesn't lecture you. —John Thomason